Jeffrey K. Conner's Teaching Goals and Experience PDF Print E-mail

I have long enjoyed teaching, and am committed to excellence in all aspects of teaching.  I believe that research and teaching are complementary activities: active involvement in research improves teaching and vice versa.  I was named to the University of Illinois’ list of teachers rated excellent based on student evaluations three times in six years.

I taught courses in behavioral ecology and introductory biology in graduate school, courses in population biology and ecological genetics at the University of Illinois, and now coordinate and teach half of the graduate evolutionary biology course, teach one third of the advanced field ecology and evolution course at Michigan State, and lead graduate seminars one or two semesters per year.  My population biology course covered population ecology, population genetics, and the interface between these fields.  The central theme of my advanced undergraduate/graduate level ecological genetics course and my portions of my two current courses mirror a central theme of my research -- how do organisms adapt to their biotic and abiotic environments?

For many years in these courses I lacked a book that approached evolutionary genetics from a conceptual rather than a mathematical viewpoint, and that focused on questions and examples from natural populations.  Therefore, in I wrote A Primer of Ecological Genetics (2004, Sinauer) with Dan Hartl.  I wrote the text, drawing on Hartl’s Population Genetics primer for examples and organization for the first three chapters, and Hartl read and commented extensively on the entire text.  While the book has yet to be formally reviewed, John N. Thompson of the University of California at Santa Cruz said this about the book in an unsolicited email:

I have been reading through your new Primer of Ecological Genetics. It is absolutely terrific, and I plan on making it required reading for graduate students in my lab and for other graduate students on whose committees I serve. Your book is bound to go a long way in clearing up fuzzy thinking about basic concepts at the interface of evolution and ecology. Just as importantly, I think your book will result in much better experimental design -- and much clearer discussion of results -- in future dissertations and the papers that result from them.”

My graduate seminar courses often focus on one or two topics each semester.  For example, in a plant-insect interactions seminar, we concentrated on pollination in the first half of the semester and plant-herbivore interactions in the second half.  I have also led seminars in plant ecology, ecological and evolutionary aspects of plant reproduction, sexual selection, and evolutionary ecology.  I work with the students in choosing the readings in an effort to give the students a comprehensive overview of current knowledge and approaches in each area.  During discussion I ask leading and probing questions, encouraging the students to defend their positions and think critically about larger conceptual issues raised by the papers.

I believe that equal in importance to my classroom teaching is providing students with research experience; to this end, I have had over 150 undergraduates from a number of different colleges and universities do research in my lab.  In the past few years I have also begun hosting high school interns from a local math and science center.  Most of the undergraduates and all of the high school students work with me and my graduate students on our ongoing projects.  Each student is exposed to a variety of projects and learns several techniques.  We have required weekly lab meetings for all members of the lab, at which we discuss all of the projects in the lab, solve problems that arise, and read and discuss papers relevant to our research.  As in my lecture courses, I try to give research students experience in all aspects of the scientific method.  Some of the undergraduates go on to do independent distinction projects.  My distinction students are expected to go through the entire process, from defining the question to preparing a paper for publication.  To date ten undergraduates have received distinction for work in my lab, and six are co-authors on eight published papers.

I involve my incoming graduate students immediately in collaborative research with me.  This enables them to learn my approaches to research, get hands-on experience, and publish papers while they are developing an independent Ph.D. thesis project.  I find that most students are fixated on course work when they enter graduate school, which is not surprising given the emphasis in college.  While coursework can be very important in graduate training, many graduate students have difficulty making the transition from excellence in the classroom to excellence in research.  This is my main goal in their early research experience.  To date I have co-authored 15 papers with eight of my graduate students (none of these are from their Ph.D work).  In 2003 I received the MSU College of Natural Science Outstanding Graduate Advisor award.

Last Updated on Friday, 01 October 2010 19:22