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Passing on the torch: A U of T undergraduate biology class evolves

Professors Spencer Barrett and James Thomson of the department of ecology & evolutionary biology are retiring in 2018 (photo by Diana Tyszko)

For over a quarter century, University Professor Spencer Barrett and Professor James Thomson have been teaching first-year students a key foundational course in biology.

After introducing hundreds of students to the world of biodiversity, the ecology & evolutionary biology professors in the Faculty of Arts & Science are retiring this year. They recently delivered their final lectures in Adaptation and Biodiversity, commonly known as BIO120.

“It has been wonderful having two outstanding teachers and researchers introduce so many students to biology at the University of Toronto. Seeing the passion and wealth of experience James and Spencer bring to their teaching is wonderful,” said Don Jackson, chair of the department of ecology & evolutionary biology.

“The loss of their leadership in this course represent a significant change – the end of an era – in our teaching. However, our students will continue to be taught and inspired by excellent teachers and researchers with Professors Megan Frederickson and Stephen Wright joining the course.”

Barrett began teaching the first-year introductory biology course in 1990, with Thomson joining in 2007. They have taught about 1,800 students in Convocation Hall each year since – more than 30,000 over the years.

“It’s a privilege to teach students who are curious, hopeful, and a little apprehensive,” said Thomson. “I undertake to stoke the curiosity and preserve the hope.”

“BIO120 is the best teaching assignment because it’s so important. Its size alone requires that the course be well taught, but the subject matter is critical too,” Thomson adds. “BIO120 serves as a prerequisite for later courses, but that’s not how I see it. To me, it’s an urgent, last opportunity to provide a foundation that’s probably missing.”

Associate Professors Stephen Wright (left) and Megan Frederickson (second from left) with Professors Spencer Barrett and James Thomson (photo by Diana Tyszko)

Barrett and Thomson are both active, internationally recognized researchers, fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, and have served as presidents of their discipline’s professional societies. Barrett is a renowned evolutionary biologist, plant scientist, and an exceptional teacher and mentor. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of London, an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and holds the title of University Professor – the university’s highest honour.

“I have taught first year introductory biology since coming to U of T 40 years ago,” said Barrett. “BIO120 is one of the largest – if not the largest – classes in North America. This course pioneered large class teaching at U of T, and our teaching team won the Northrop Frye Award in1999 for integrating teaching with research.”

Thomson is an award-winning researcher in the evolutionary ecology of plant-pollinator interactions. His field experiments at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory – a high-altitude biological field station in Colorado – continue to generate new insights into bees.

He cares deeply about teaching and is noted for the attention he devotes to creating a unique and enriching learning experience for his students. As one student wrote: “In my years of study with some superb teachers, I can confidently say that very few match Professor Thomson in his capacity to teach, inspire and challenge.” His continued dedication and excellence earned him U of T’s President’s Teaching Award in 2016.

Their passion and dedication to discovery is evident as they bring their current research interests into the classroom to teach and inspire students. Many were attracted to graduate studies because of their experience in BIO120. Thomson and Barrett have supervised a total of 43 doctoral students to date, with additional students currently completing their degrees.

“BIO120 was perhaps the single most important course I took in undergrad,” said Madeline Peters, a PhD candidate in ecology & evolutionary biology. “Before university, I would never have predicted ending up in ecology & evolutionary biology, but it was because of BIO120 that I got started on a path through three years of undergraduate research and now graduate school. Professors Thomson and Barrett were not just lecturers, they were storytellers, and their enthusiasm was contagious.”

Incoming BIO120 instructor, Wright, an associate professor, is also one of Barrett’s former first-year biology students, back when it was known as BIO150. He and Frederickson, an associate professor in the department, are both distinguished researchers who regularly receive prestigious grants and awards for their research – assume teaching duties in the fall.

“For me, taking BIO150 with Professor Barrett was truly life changing,” said Wright. “It was the first time I had heard the logic and evidence for evolution, and with fascinating examples and a compelling explanation of how science worked, I had a true ‘consciousness-raising’ experience.

“I am thrilled and honoured to become one of the new first-year lecturers in this course with Professor Frederickson. We hope to continue to expand the intellectual horizons of first-year students, and to demonstrate the power of ecological and evolutionary research to gain key insights into the natural world.”

Barrett and Thomson will formally retire in July 2018, though both will continue their research and supervision of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.