Outstanding Teachers: Biology Inspired With Touches of Theater

April 28, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

Great Teaching is at the heart of a great university. Nine University professors featured here have received special acclaim for their instructional acumen from Carnegie Foundation, Presidential and Chancellor awards to recognition by The Princeton Review. Their classroom magic inspires students and prepares them for the future.

Jennifer Basil - Associate Professor of Biology - Brooklyn College

Jennifer Basil – Associate Professor of Biology – Brooklyn College

As a teenager on the brink of college, Jennifer Basil faced a big decision – theater or biology. At 17 she’d apprenticed at the New York State School of Performing Arts at the Circle Repertory Company in New York City. But at age 9 — “after watching everything on PBS about animals and fish” – she had written to the renowned Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod, looking for work.

She opted for biology. Earning her Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, she studied learning and navigation in the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that excels at remembering locations. A Woods Hole researcher then offered her a postdoctoral position to study spatial navigation in lobsters. Although lobsters navigate by smell while nutcrackers use sight, Basil couldn’t resist. And during six years at Woods Hole, she co-founded and acted in a theater company there.

Now — as associate professor of biology at Brooklyn College, acting chair of the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior Ph.D. Program at the CUNY Graduate Center and improv group member —- Basil melds her passions in the classroom. “I teach kinesthetically; I try to be as animated as possible. I use storytelling — for example, this Brooklyn squirrel that lives in my backyard. I go over concepts in as many ways as possible to reach as many students as possible,” she says.

Her sophomore zoology students go to the Prospect Park Zoo and report in scientific style for her writing-intensive course. “You can see animals weighing costs and benefits by doing point-sampling every few minutes and recording what they are doing. Students can measure how much time is spent foraging for food; if an animal is foraging, he can’t be looking for predators, and if he’s interacting with a flock member, he can’t be eating. Students go to the zoo in snow and rain because they’re having so much fun.”

Benelita Tina Elie (Brooklyn College, B.S. in biology, 2008) says Basil “treats students as intellectual equals. She’s very patient, very thorough. There’s no dumb question. She feels a moral imperative to grant the public access to the science she does. It’s why she’s teaching at a public college and is eager to introduce her work to high school students and the public in general.”

Two years of undergraduate research in Basil’s lab inspired Elie to pursue biology over law or medicine. She looked at how crayfish explore their environment with antennae and bristles and how artificial estrogens in water affect aggression in stickleback fish. Now a research assistant in cancer genetics and biology at Sloan-Kettering Institute, Elie is applying to neuroscience Ph.D. programs.

Basil studies cephalopods, which are mollusks like the octopus, squid and chambered nautilus. “Octopuses have very large brains relative to their bodies. These are complex brains, with long-term memory, spatial memory and the ability to watch another octopus doing something new and then do it themselves. Brains are very hard to make and maintain, so what were the evolutionary pressures that, in natural selection, resulted in this huge investment in brains?”

Even more curious is that octopus nerve cells differ electrically from those in human brains, though they function together in the same way. “So are there rules about how to put a big brain together?”

But the brains Basil is most concerned with are those of her students. “I go into a classroom exhausted and come out energized,” she says. “Teaching at CUNY makes it easy, because these are the best students I’ve ever taught.”