Chris O’Connor, PhD


Creating of a Culture of Research

If you ask Chris O’Connor, PhD, assistant professor of biology, fruit flies are not the pesky summer pests we know and despise; rather they’re important research tools in the study of genetics.

“Fruit flies are a decent model to show us how genes can be passed on from parent to offspring and then to subsequent generations,” O’Connor says, noting that students track misshaped wings, eye color, body color, and other traits. “The studies also give students a taste of what independent research is like because these are living organisms. We can’t tell the flies when to reproduce and when not to, we’re on their clock. Students often need to come in outside of their scheduled lab time in order to take care of their project.”

As part of the genetics fly project, students develop their own hypothesis and test it. “Traditionally, students would be given a list of instructions on how to do an experiment, go through the process of doing those steps, get results, and that’s it,” O’Connor says. “With inquiry-based work, we ask them to think about what they’re doing and come up with their own predictions.”

Critical evaluation of information is a central tenet of O’Connor’s classes. “I don’t want students to just memorize the parts of a cell, I want them to understand what those parts are doing and, if you were to break one of those parts, what would happen to that cell,” he says.

Given the complexities of scientific concepts, the material can be difficult to comprehend. However, O’Connor is not one to let students slide—he’s constantly assessing student understanding and following up when needed.

Adam Brazzle, a junior biology major, plans to seek a doctorate in cell biology and microbiology. The most important thing he’s learned from O’Connor, Brazzle says, is to stay calm. “I was one of the students that needed a lot of help with studying and taking exams,” he says. “Dr. O’Connor worked with me, sent me to the right people to get help with studying, gave me extra resources to check my understanding, and repeated over and over and over again, ‘Do not hit that panic button!’ He never doubted my abilities or me. And he never stopped reminding me of that.”

Biomedical science major Abby Noor, junior, aspires to graduate work in pharmaceutical sciences or medicinal chemistry. She found O’Connor’s genetics class challenging, but enjoyed it so much she dropped another course to opt into a second class taught by O’Connor—molecular genetics. “That class consisted of a lot of practical and real life experiences with lab projects and reading scientific journals,” says Abby Noor. “I acquired good scientific writing and reading skills in his class that I know will benefit me in my future scientific studies.”

O’Connor is focused on giving his students the tools and critical thinking skills they need to be successful and impactful scientists. “Hopefully, by the time they leave Maryville, they’re going to start asking questions no one has an answer for, but would be great questions to study.”

“In my experience, the most brilliant experts in the world cannot be good educators, unless they show their students how much they care about their education in their class,” says Brazzle. “Dr. O’Connor demonstrated that every day.”