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Thomas Phillips appointed Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor

July 21, 2016

Tom Phillips standing in front of Tucker Hall

Thomas E. Phillips has been appointed a Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor. The position is one of the most prestigious titles granted by the University of Missouri System and is awarded by the UM Board of Curators.

“The truth is I’m humbled by being selected for this appointment and honor,” Phillips said. “We have so many amazing students at MU, and it’s an immense pleasure to work with them to achieve their professional dreams. Their passion and drive, their intelligence, their dreams motivate me to do my best for them, since I want so much for them to succeed.”

For Phillips, the appointment is the most recent in a long succession of teaching accolades. Phillips joined the faculty in the Division of Biological Sciences in 1986. Over the course of his career, he has won almost every teaching award at MU, including the William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence and the Maxine Christopher Shutz Award and Lecture for Distinguished Teaching.

Phillips was nominated for this most recent honor by several of his colleagues and former students. In letters of support, they extolled his teaching abilities, contributions, and impact on students, the Division, and Mizzou.

Associate Professor Joel Maruniak was one faculty member who praised Phillips’ teaching contributions. “In my opinion, they don’t make teachers any better than Tom,” he wrote. “He is operating at the very highest level where peers only do things differently but not better. This guy is a departmental, university, and state asset.”

Tom Phillips and four graduating seniors

Dr. Phillips is frequently asked by students to walk with them at commencement. Here he is with four 2016 biology graduates at the Honors commencement.

An outstanding teaching record and teacher

Phillips has taught both graduate and undergraduate courses over the years, but his undergraduate offerings are more numerous and have garnered him the most commendations. He currently teaches courses on vertebrate histology, pathophysiology, and cell biology as well as a seminar on professional skills for pre-med students. He also serves as the faculty advisor for both the Pre-Med Honors Freshmen Interest Group and the Pre-Med Society.

Associate Professor Gerald Summers, who coordinates the Division’s undergraduate curriculum, observed that Phillips’ courses span all academic levels, from freshman to seniors, and include capstone courses, writing intensive offerings, and Honors sections.

“Tom’s teaching record in our department is outstanding,” he said. “Clearly, Professor Phillips is fully committed to undergraduate education.”

In the classroom, Phillips is known as a rigorous teacher with high expectations for learning, but one who is willing to go the extra mile for students. Students frequently comment on how he pushes them to think through problems, to use their knowledge from other classes, to connect with the material, and to think independently and creatively.

“Rather than seeing the classroom as an arena where he demonstrates expertise, he sees it as a place where students demonstrate theirs,” shared one former student.

Professor Steve Alexander said that Phillips is determined to get the best out of students and has developed a number of novel techniques to keep them engaged and focused. But, he added, as important as those techniques are, they are not what sets Phillips apart from other teachers.

“The bottom line on Tom is that he has an extraordinary passion for, and dedication to, teaching,” he said. “His passion and engagement are palpable when one attends his classes, and we all would be well advised to follow his example.”

Tom Phillips helping student on with white medical coat

Dr. Phillips’ interest in students continues long after they graduate. Here he is  “coating” his former student, Brian Jochems, at the Vet School’s White Coat ceremony.

A premiere pre-med advisor

A common denominator of Phillips’ courses is the clientele: students who hope to go to medical school. His histology and pathophysiology courses are widely considered “must takes” for serious pre-med students, but not simply for the material covered. Phillips has adopted teaching approaches commonly used in medical schools, such as the use of clinical case studies.

But, as Summers observed, students do not register for Phillips’ classes simply because they appear to be necessary.

“They enroll in his courses because they know that they will be challenged and that they will develop a set of skills that prepare them for professional school or graduate research,” he said. “They know the work will be demanding, but they also know that Professor Phillips will be there to guide them.”

Having taught at Harvard Medical School prior to MU, Phillips knows the difficult pathway that lies ahead for these high-achieving students. In 2009, he joined forces with Maruniak to design and teach a new seminar course focused on the skills students need to successfully compete for admission into medical or other health-related professional schools.

“His advising and mentoring skills are legendary in the pre-medical world,” wrote Lejla Vajzovic, M.D., who is an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Duke University Eye Center. “He was directly responsible for my decision to apply for and attend the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine after graduation.”

Like many of Phillips’ former students, Vajzovic also noted that his mentoring does not stop at the end of a course or when a student graduates. Phillips’ advice often continues beyond graduation.

“Even today, thirteen years later after my graduation from MU, every time we meet (and, we do still meet), I find great pleasure in sharing all my academic and personal successes and excitements with Professor Phillips, because he is the most directly responsible for them,” Vajzovic shared.

Tom Phillips & Kassie Hyde

Students frequently ask Dr. Phillips to accompany them to an award ceremony as their “mentor of significance.” Here he is with his former student, Kassie Hyde, at the 2012 Mizzou 39 ceremony.

A ‘deep personal investment’ in students

For Associate Professor Miriam Golomb, Phillips’ “deep personal investment” in students is a signature of his teaching.

“Caring about students may be Tom’s greatest contribution as a teacher,” she said. “He seizes every opportunity to get to know them, their aspirations, and their lives.”

Students in Phillips’ histology course, for example, are required to pick up their exams in person, a practice Phillips lightheartedly refers to as “confessions with Father Tom.” While the purpose of these one-on-one meetings are to talk about each student’s performance on the exam, Phillips inevitably turns the discussion to the student’s career preparations and future aspirations.

“As I hand back exams, I always ask students what their post-graduation plans are since most are seniors,” said Phillips. “By breaking down this barrier and showing I have an interest in their life outside of class, the student ends up realizing they can come to me for career advice.”

Fifteen years later, Nicholas R. Mahoney, M.D., still recalls the impact of these meetings with Phillips.

Tom Phillips and Nick Mahoney

As chair of the Division’s Undergraduate Scholarship Committee, Dr. Phillips is a constant presence at the Division’s annual Honors banquent events. Here he is presenting his former student Nicholas Mahoney with the 2002 Cancer Federation Scholarship for Outstanding Senior in Biological Sciences.

“Over the length of a course, he gently helped me see that a career in a field I was not interested in would be a fruitless one,” he wrote. “He guided me toward my ultimate destination to pursue a career in medicine and inspired me to reach out of my comfort zone, both by changing my field of study and in broadening my prospects, for the sake of my success,” wrote Mahoney, who is now an assistant professor of ophthalmology and a surgeon at the Johns Hopkins University’s Wilmer Eye Institute.

Like Mahoney, Spencer Vale also recalled these meetings fondly. Vale, who is currently in his fourth year at MU School of Medicine, noted that Phillips’ interest in students gave him “unique and authentic insight as a mentor.”

“In my experience, it is rare that a teacher dedicates so much time to helping students evaluate and actualize their ambitions,” he added. “For me, these meetings provided constant motivation to push myself further in histology and foresight into opportunities that would be essential for my success in medical school.”

Beyond the classroom

Tom Phillips grading with cat on his lap

Dr. Phillips grading with his “TA.” –  “I always tell students this is why my handwritten notes are so hard to read.”

Phillips’ teaching contributions extend well beyond the classroom.

Phillips has led the Division’s Undergraduate Education Committee and Undergraduate Scholarship Committee continuously for the past two decades. He helped craft the campus-wide policy on providing credit to military veterans as co-chair of MU’s Committee on Credit for Military Service and Coursework as well as clarify the intellectual property processes and policy for instructor-developed course materials as a member of UM System’s Intellectual Property Committee. He also has been a vocal advocate for faculty interests as a member of the UM Intercampus Faculty Council (IFC) and MU Faculty Council.

“Tom is an excellent example of the type of good citizen who contributes to the academic mission both inside and outside the classroom,” wrote Steve Graham, Senior Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs. “The UM System relies on faculty who are willing to sacrifice their time to participate in the shared governance process that results in the creation of the rules and regulations that govern teaching and academics.”

“The MU Molecular Cytology Core is another important aspect of Phillips’ commitment to the teaching mission of the University,” observed John C. Walker, Curators’ Distinguished Professor and director of biological sciences.

Every year, the MCC trains upward of 150 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows on light microscopy. Phillips established the core facility in 1991 and has served continuously as its director.

Phillips’ reach extends to the broader community. He participates in the Missouri Scholars Academy every summer and regularly gives tours of the MCC to high school groups. He is also one of a few scientists at MU whose research has appeared in an exhibit at the Saint Louis Science Center.

Dr. Phillips at a microscope

In addition to running his own lab, Dr. Phillips established the Molecular Cytology Core in 1991 and has served continuously as its director.

An excellent research record

“It’s important to point out that his exemplary teaching record has been achieved alongside an excellent research record,” added Walker.

Phillips’ lab uses a combination of microscopy techniques and biochemical and molecular genetic approaches to study mucosal cell biology in the conjunctiva (the inner surface of the eyelid) and intestinal tract.

Carisa Petris, M.D., Ph.D., completed her doctoral research in his lab. She said, ultimately, it was her work with Phillips that lead to her interest in pursuing an ophthalmology residency after medical school and that helped her secure a competitive oculoplastic surgery fellowship.

“I attribute much of my success to his support and through my exposure to his exceptional teaching, research pursuits, and endless mentorship,” wrote Petris, who is currently an assistant professor of ophthalmology at MU.

In addition to Petris, Phillips has mentored 4 graduate students, 3 postdoctoral fellows, and over 30 undergraduates in his lab. He also has served on 28 additional graduate student committees across campus.

Phillips is only the second faculty member in the Division of Biological Sciences to receive the appointment as a Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor. James Carrel received the appointment in 1999.


Written by: Melody Kroll

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