"Make sure you’re always enjoying the questions that you’re asking, and the knowledge that you’re pursuing." -Dr. Brandon
Mar 15, 2018
Florida Southern’s engaging and hands-on learning biology department has some pretty awesome professors — like Dr. Christopher Brandon! From a young age he developed a love of the natural world and a fascination with evolution, which carried on into his career. His passion for education shows through in his teaching style and patience with students. Those who have taken his class can tell you that he’s always willing to provide extra support to students and genuinely cares about each individual’s academic success.
What initially made you decide to teach at Florida Southern?
Geographically speaking, my wife got a job with the U.S. Geographical Survey. After grad school my son was a year-and-a-half old, and we came down here. My wife drove the career in terms of where we were going to go. I always wanted to teach at a teaching college. At some point in my later years of grad school, I had decided that’s what I wanted to do. Florida Southern is a really good fit; I like our student body and connecting to students on a one-on-one basis. I can do that here as well as give students advice in terms of pursuing science. I develop meaningful relationships with students, and that’s what I want most.
Tell us about your fascination with birds and their relation to dinosaurs. In your biography you say that you were initially fascinated by birds and the fact that they are related dinosaurs. However, the organism in your area of focus is a small water crustacean called daphnia. What caused your focus to shift to daphnia?
When I was young, my first introduction to understanding how things change was the revelation that birds were descendant from dinosaurs, so at that age it blew my mind, and sort of introduced me to this whole idea that there’s a lot of story to tell in the natural world. Then later on, I came back to it as a young adult. I was mostly just interested in biodiversity, natural history, and the process of evolution. Later on in life, it was more Carl Sagan and E.O. Wilson who drove me to evolution and then the story of life. The program that I was going through was asking the types of questions that I was interested in, and daphnia was the organism that was useful to answer those questions. So, daphnia was serendipitous. When you come to a lab these are the animals they work with, I love those animals, and they were just very useful for answering the types of questions that I wanted to ask.
You attained a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of South Carolina. Was there ever a time in your educational career when you were unsure of what path you wanted to pursue, major wise?
Undergrad, yes. As a grad student, yes. As an undergrad I started off at a community college. I was interested in writing. I liked to write and I liked stories, but I thought to myself, "what can I do with this?" Then I got introduced to some major scientists and their theories, like Sagan, and started thinking about evolution again. So, I said, "Well, hey, I can do biology. I like evolution a whole lot, and I can still write." As an undergrad it’s hard to envision what that career path is. I just knew I wanted to do research but I didn’t know where that was going to take me. I always had lingering doubts about what was going to come next, but always in the moment I enjoyed what I was doing. As a grad student, it’s an emotional roller coaster, and I think anyone will tell you that. Part of the process of grad school is failing and getting used to that. I had lots of doubts of what my success was going to be, and where I was going to go from there. As well as the competition at the higher levels. I was pulled in all sorts of different directions. That’s my story, but I think that’s pretty typical.
You mentioned that originally you had been uncomfortable with public speaking. How was it to transition from that to having a job where you talk in front of people all day?
It was tough. I still get nervous, especially the first day of class. I get more comfortable as the semester goes on and I get to know you guys. Just having to do it a lot was the only thing that really helped me. I thought, going into science, that I wasn’t really going to have to do that, but that was just naivete. With my classes, especially the science ones, I always had to give presentations. Then as a graduate student one of the ways that they paid for you was to teach — especially in a doctoral program. As a teaching assistant, you’re just thrown into the fire. At that point I never had teaching experience. They just said "Here’s a class, go for it." You’re thrown in a pit of fire and just have to get over it. By doing it over and over again you begin to get better. I’ll be honest, if it’s speeches at conferences, or the first day of class I’m always a little nervous.
What aspect of being a professor do you enjoy most?
The diversity of things that I have to do. Even if I’m teaching the same class I’m still learning new things, and challenged to do new things on a daily basis. If you go into science one of the things you’ll lean is that you have an intellectual curiosity, and that you like to be busy with learning new things as well as not being on a routine schedule.
How do you feel your experience with research has helped you guide students in their own research?
This year is the first year I’m on the tenure track, so I have a little bit more responsibility in that realm. Having the experience of understanding what questions are fruitful and not overwhelming, as well as going through the research process has helped me to help my students out with their research. When you’re young you have all these big ideas and lots of questions, but don’t know what the best route to ask those broad questions is. It’s about narrowing it down to small questions that you can get an answer for really easily. As an incoming grad student, I also had some big wild question, that as I went through the program I realized keep it simple, keep it direct.
Which one would you say was the most memorable and why?
Right now, I have one student who’s developing a project with me to look at a specific gene in daphnia. He is going to try to look at this gene and see where it is expressed. If he can identify where it’s expressed, we can start to narrow down the possible function of this particular gene.
Who’s your biggest influence in terms of teaching?
I work very closely with Dr. Morvillo and Dr. Banks, and I think they’re really strong peer mentors in terms of how I approach teaching. My graduate advisor was another significant influence on my teaching philosophy. I took a class with him and it was mostly learning on a one on one basis, but looking at how he approached undergrad education really influenced me. He was a patient teacher, and even though he taught at a large research university he took this idea of engaged teaching and employed some principles from it in his classroom of over a hundred. He knew most of his students' names, even though he had a class of a hundred, and that was pretty inspiring. That’s something I attempt to do every semester. Little things like that.
From your personal experience what has been the most rewarding part of teaching?
Seeing students be successful and begin to creep towards their overall goals is the most satisfying aspect of teaching. The personal relationships, as well as seeing students get interested in science, and grow into it is very exciting to watch.
What would you like to accomplish in the future at Florida Southern?
Essentially, I just want to be the best educator that I could possibly be. Also, hopefully inspire students to go on to pursue science, be confident, and successful in that. In addition to that, introduce students to research projects, and become better researchers. I have some personal goals in terms of continuing some basic work in the evolution of eyes in daphnia, but that’s secondary to watching my students grow and become better scientists.
You mentioned that you enjoy spending time with family; how do balance your family life with teaching and research?
It’s a pull in all directions. My wife is in research. She’s working on her Ph.D. at University of Florida; she’s a physical oceanographer. So, she has a very busy schedule like me. When I go home and see my wife and son, I try to just push things aside for a second. It’s day by day.
What is your favorite travel location?
Puerto Rico, that’s the stock answer for my wife but it’s honestly true. I haven’t traveled abroad so much, but I do make it a point to travel to different places in the US. Since we now spend most of our travel budget visiting family in Puerto Rico every time I’m there I push my wife to go with me to visit other places on the island. I’ve been all over that island, I love that island. It’s a beautiful place. I’ve been in the mountains, the forests, and the small islands. I love the culture and the food. It’s super green and it’s fun to explore. It’s a different world.
In your bio you mentioned that you enjoy art. Do you make art? If so what medium?
I do watercolor paintings. It’s something I do on the side, but I don’t produce a painting a week or anything. When I get the opportunity, I paint. I like to paint birds and wildlife. I usually take pictures when I’m out in nature and try to paint those pictures. I like painting because it’s an opportunity to focus in on that and shut other things out. It’s a way to clear my mind.
What advice would you give students who are pursuing a career in a biological field?
Make sure you’re always enjoying the questions that you’re asking, and the knowledge that you’re pursuing!
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