Discussion Inspires Professor's Research

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Bringing his passion for science to the classroom, molecular and cell biology professor Gary Firestone passes up traditional lecturing to engage his students in discussion.

"I really enjoy teaching," Firestone says. "I feel like it's a privilege to stand in front of the class."

Firestone, who has taught at UC Berkeley for 18 years, says that while various commitments keep him busy, the stress is energizing.

"My three jobs are research, teaching, and committee meetings," he says.

Firestone currently oversees three research projects focused on the growth and differentiation of cancer cells, especially breast cancer cells. Focusing his research on cancer prevention possibilities in nutritional science and toxicology, he discovered potent anti-breast cancer properties in the indol compounds of broccoli. He also conducts research on stereohormones and tight-junction dynamics involved in the expression and regulation of cancer cells.

Teaching an upper division cell and developmental biology course, along with Biology 1A, he adopts a socratic teaching approach, posing questions to spark discussion.

"Discussions are a vital part of lecture," Firestone says.

Next fall, Firestone says he will teach a molecular endocrinology class to seniors and hopes the facts he presents will guide students to apply in-class knowledge to the big-picture questions with which doctors and researchers on the forefront of scientific technology are grappling.

Inspired by a high school chemistry teacher, Firestone majored in chemistry at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and says he intended to remain in an academic environment. He changed his focus from chemistry to biochemistry after researching and publishing a paper on lypoic acids during his undergraduate years.

Moving on to the University of Iowa for graduate school, Firestone studied biochemistry and became involved with the college wrestling team. From Iowa, he came to California, receiving his doctorate at UC San Francisco before settling down in Berkeley.

As a former student of liberal arts colleges, Firestone says he tries to create the intimate small-college atmosphere in his large, lecture-hall classes. By applying textbook topics to real-life situations, he prompts discussion in his 100-plus student classes. He says he likes to pose practical questions such as "How do contraceptives work?"

He says sometimes a student's question prompts him to reassess his research.

"It's stimulating when a student asks a question I don't know the answer to," Firestone says.

Overlap in his research and class material allows Firestone to focus on both laboratory work and lecture material simultaneously.

In 1995, he received UC Berkeley's Distinguished Teaching Award. His dedication was recognized last year when his students awarded him the Molecular and Cell Biology Honorary Award.

Firestone says he takes his laptop computer with him on family hikes in case of sudden bursts of inspiration.

He adds that he plans to continue teaching at UC Berkeley for many years to come.

"As long as I can stand up and hold a piece of chalk, I will be teaching" he says.

The "unbridled enthusiasm" he admires in Berkeley students feeds Firestone's love for the intellect, diversity and vivacity he says he feels makes the university unique.


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