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Professor shares her love of science and discovery

09/25/2013

After conducting HIV and immunology research for some years, Dr. Carolyn Dehner headed for the University of Notre Dame to continue her studies in biochemistry and earn her Ph.D.

"I wanted to become a college professor. I love what science can tell us, and I love sharing and talking about science," Dehner said. "Biochemistry blows my mind because it really gets at the heart of how living things work. I enjoy research at times, but I see it more as an important pedagogical tool so students can apply what they've learned and become excited about science. It's fun discovering new things about the natural world!"

Although she has experience in and a passion for host-pathogen biochemistry, she also has a strong interest in environmental toxicology, and would like to study the mobilization and bioavailability of pollutants in our environment, and the role that microbial biochemistry plays.

Dehner - who earned her bachelor's degree from one of MCLA's fellow COPLAC institutions, SUNY-Geneseo - last taught at Smith College. While there, she also studied bacteria as a McPherson postdoctoral fellow.

"Bacteria often encounter many different environments during the course of their lives, and need to be able to adjust quickly to survive. This is accomplished by sensing certain environmental 'cues' and regulating their genes accordingly," she explained.

"I was trying to determine how the switch from room temperature to human body temperature might serve as a major cue for E. coli to start 'turning on' genes and making proteins that would be beneficial to have in the human host. This could have implications for antibacterial drug development."

What was it about MCLA that made her want to teach here? She explained that the people, the location and the mission of the institution drew her to the campus.

"I could not ask for more genuine, caring, competent and nice co-workers. The students seem to really appreciate being here and the opportunities that this institution affords them."

Dehner said she loves teaching college students because, "They really feel a sense of responsibility and control in their education, which makes such a difference. They are here because they are either simply interested in the subject, or because they are working towards a goal - figuring out the career path that works for them, in a world of endless possibilities. It is so exciting and humbling to be a part of that."

This semester, Dehner is teaching classes in "Introduction to Chemistry" and "Biochemistry."

As a college professor, her educational philosophy is to be more of a "guide on the side" than a "sage on the stage."

"Questions, dialogue, being challenged and working through problems are much more effective for learning than simply listening to a lecture, and I try to foster that," Dehner said.

One day, she would like to teach classes in the chemistry of food and cooking, bioenergy, bioterrorism and chemical warfare, as well as in advanced biochemistry and biochemistry lab.

"I like knowing how the human body works," Dehner explained. "I like knowing why following a particular diet or taking a certain medication affects me in the way it does. I'm also a big fan of bioenergy - harnessing the biochemistry of microbes to make renewable energy."

What does she hope her students take away from her classes?

"Knowing how to think rationally and logically about a topic is one of the most crucial skills you can develop, period," Dehner said. "Also, the natural world is awe-inspiring, and there is still so much to discover!"