2014 Faculty Awards: A Q&A with James W. Brown

April 24, 2014
By Bill Krueger

The Alumni Association is honoring 26 NC State professors with the 2014 Faculty Awards for their outstanding work in the classroom, in the laboratory and in the field. We talked (via email) with some of the recipients about their work and the keys to being a successful professor.

faculty-brownToday we’re visiting with James W. Brown, an associate professor of microbiology and undergraduate teaching coordinator, in the College of Sciences. Brown is one of seven professors being recognized as a Distinguished Undergraduate Professor.

What prompted you to become a professor? Can I refine this question to “What prompted me to become a professor in the sciences?”? Because the two go hand in hand. My father was a professor, but in a very different field, foreign languages and linguistics. As a result, we had students around the house all the time, students from Spain and Latin America, which I thought was very cool. We also spent a lot of time in Spanish-speaking countries, while my father chaperoned students during Study Abroad programs in Spain, Mexico and Peru (we lived for a year in Lima, Peru). On the other hand, my mother had been one of the only women physics majors at Indiana University, and nurtured my interest in the sciences, for example by creating a “petri dish” of nutrient agar in a baking dish to see what would grow — I must’ve been in about 2nd grade. My brothers and I were always encouraged to explore the wild, and I grew up at home in the nearby woods, springs and ocean. So when I moved through college  and graduate school in biology and microbiology, a career as a professor seemed very natural.

What are the keys to being a successful professor? I don’t know. When you find someone with a good answer forward it to me. My attempt to be a good professor has focused around treating students with respect, because they after all are adults who are not less smart than me, just less experienced, and trying to show students how amazing the real world is, and that it’s OK to have that enthusiastic amazement. I also try to be as student-focused as I can be, this is after all the purpose of a university. I think any faculty, administrator or staff member who doesn’t look forward to what they can do for the betterment of our students every day is shortchanging themselves.

What gives you the greatest satisfaction as a professor? Seeing a student “get it.” Often this happens at the end of a semester, when all the threads of a class come together for the “grand finale” and students can finally see and appreciate the big picture. Other times it’s smaller things earlier in the semester, where a student has the “Aha!” moment of grasping some difficult concept. More often, perhaps, it happens after graduation, and I get an email from a student who has gone out into the world and realizes the unique perspective on the world we have been able to help them build here at NCSU. I should also say that I get a lot of satisfaction out of graduation day. By this time I’ve know students for a while, seen them grow and become sophisticated scientists, often struggle and overcome adversity, and stand up to receive their degree. What a joy for everyone involved! their degree. What a joy for everyone involved!

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