Mike Morrow named Montana Professor of the Year

UMW News Bureau

mike morrow

University of Montana Western Professor of Biology Michael Morrow is the Carnegie Foundation 2012 Montana Professor of the Year.

The Professors of the Year awards are administered by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). The Carnegie Foundation and CASE have been partners in offering the U.S. Professors of the Year awards program since 1981.

Morrow’s honor comes on the heels of three other Professor of the Year awards for the small campus located in Dillon, Mont. He is Montana Western’s fourth Carnegie Professor of the Year in four years, following 2011 Montana Professor of the Year Julie Bullard, 2010 Montana Professor of the Year Delena Norris-Tull and 2009 U.S. Professor of the Year Rob Thomas.

Morrow’s honor is the fourth Professor of the Year award in a row for Montana Western.

Born in Bowling Green, Ohio and raised in Clarion, Penn., Morrow is the son of two educators. His father taught microbiology at Clarion University of Pennsylvania and his mother taught at the elementary level. With the ultimate goal of becoming a biology professor himself, Morrow went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania in 1995 before earning his Ph.D. in Cell, Molecular and Developmental Biology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2001. After one year of teaching in a post-doctoral fellowship at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Penn., Morrow accepted a temporary position as a research assistant at the University of Montana Western in 2002.

In just 10 short years, he proved instrumental in transforming the program from a small department with five majors to the fastest growing academic department on campus with 126 students currently seeking a degree in biology.

Morrow came to Montana Western on a two-year, grant-funded position. Biology was not even an official program at the time. Students were able to pursue a pre-professional health sciences degree, but there was no path to biomedical or molecular biology degrees nor was there a laboratory sufficient to teach these fields.

Morrow immediately began working on grants to grow the program. In July 2004, he secured a $180,000 annual, five-year grant through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE). The grant allowed Morrow to become a tenure-track professor and to begin modernizing the university’s biology laboratory and classrooms. The funding not only allowed the development of infrastructure for the department; it also allowed Morrow and other professors to provide new opportunities for students to enter the biomedical fields, thoroughly modernizing the curriculum.

“With the funding, I was then able to infuse the knowledge of what a biomedical student needed,” Morrow explains. “We knew it was going to be hard because we had little to no infrastructure. What we really wanted to provide were opportunities for our students to work on senior theses at the undergraduate level and to truly experience novel research projects.”

The plan worked, and the numbers speak volumes.

In 2002, there were five students in the pre-professional health sciences program. The next year there were 16 and then 37. Thirty-two students came on board in 2005 when the biomedical option was implemented. In 2006, there were 53, then 67, 76, 99, 117, 128 and now 126 students seeking biology degrees at Montana Western.

In 2002, there were five students in the pre-professional health sciences program. The next year there were 16 and then 37. Thirty-two students came on board in 2005 when the biomedical option was implemented. In 2006, there were 53, then 67, 76, 99, 117, 128 and now 126 students seeking biology degrees at Montana Western.

With more and more students, the program soon hired new professors. Morrow’s colleague, UMW Associate Professor of Biology Michael Gilbert, soon secured another INBRE grant, which allowed the department to further update course offerings and continue to expand the biology program. The two INBRE grants brought in over $1 million in funding to the department.

Montana INBRE Program Coordinator Ann Bertagnolli says Morrow and his colleagues in the UMW Biology Department are a case study in effectively using INBRE grant money.

“Professor Morrow has contributed significantly to the changing research culture at Montana Western, and his successes have been showcased not only in our INBRE network but also in our annual reporting to our granting agency, the National Institute for General Medical Sciences,” Bertagnolli says. “Mike has accomplished exactly what NIH had hoped would be the outcome of INBRE funding; he brought state-of-the-art research opportunities to students, mentored them into biomedical careers, made significant contributions to the biomedical field through his own research and built a thriving biology program at Montana Western.”

Morrow credits much of the success to the modernization of the program. He also feels Montana Western’s unique block scheduling program Experience One (or X1) is a primary draw for biology majors.

Montana Western is the only public four-year university in the nation to offer classes on a block schedule in which students focus on one class at a time, three hours per day for 18 days. Taking four blocks per semester, students earn the same amount of credits as students do under traditional scheduling models.

“The word’s out about the block, and I think the word is also out about biology at Montana Western,” Morrow explains.

“The word’s out about the block, and I think the word is also out about biology at Montana Western,” Morrow explains. “We are offering students hands-on experience with extended lab experiments. Because of X1, we’re more logistically capable of doing a lot of these projects than meeting in a lab one day a week.”

Morrow said he believes biology students make a lasting connection with their subject matter under X1.

“I also think students like the block schedule,” he continues. “Not just biology students, but certainly it does work extremely well for our biology students. With the block, there are opportunities where students can spend an entire block doing research.”

Morrow is passionate about biological research, calling it the “ultimate experiential learning.” While at the University of Pittsburgh, he studied Saccharomyces cerevisiae, commonly referred to as “brewer’s yeast.” When Morrow came to Montana Western, he knew he wanted research to be a centerpiece of his teaching, but he also knew that it would be difficult for a smaller institution to practice novel research and compete with larger institutions.

“We needed a way to compete as a small program with much less money than larger research institutions,” Morrow says.

Changing from S. cerevisiae, which is relatively easy to work with, Morrow moved his research lens to focus on the pathogenic yeast Candida albicans. Morrow’s research now focuses on protein trafficking in C. albicans in an attempt to better understand protein movement within cells to ultimately identify drug targets to combat a number of types of yeast infections. Although C. albicans is more difficult to work on than S. cerevisiae, it provides students with a wide range of research opportunities.

“It allowed our undergraduates of varying levels a lot of flexibility and a certain level of complexity,” Morrow says. “It also reduced our competition, so our work was still valid and we weren’t getting scooped by larger institutions. Using a medically relevant organism is also very attractive to students.”

The impact the biological research is having on students, as well as Morrow’s rapport with students, is clearly evident in the feedback from standout alumni like Kyle Lund and Amanda Kortum.

Lund graduated from Montana Western in 2004 and went on to graduate school at Arizona State University, where he received a master’s in chemistry and a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He is currently a captain in the United States Army at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md.

Kortum graduated with honors from UMW in 2011. While studying as an undergraduate, she earned a prestigious fellowship with the American Society for Microbiology before going on to work as a biomedical cancer research scientist for the University of Washington. Kortum is currently attending the DVM/Ph.D. program at North Carolina State University.

Both Lund and Kortum credit Morrow with instilling in them a passion for biology as well as helping to prepare them for graduate school and careers in biology.

“From the moment Dr. Morrow stepped onto the campus, he had a vision of how he could pioneer a research program, which changed the mindset of both the students and his colleagues with his contagious passion for science…”

“From the moment Dr. Morrow stepped onto the campus, he had a vision of how he could pioneer a research program, which changed the mindset of both the students and his colleagues with his contagious passion for science,” Lund wrote in his recommendation letter of Morrow to the CASE Professors of the Year Program. “He is the reason I decided to not just settle for a baccalaureate degree.”

Kortum echoed Lund’s admiration and respect for Morrow in her recommendation letter, saying the impact Morrow made on her life is “incomparable,” going above and beyond in the classroom and lab.

“During my four years at UMW, Dr. Morrow was a key player, as a professor and advisor, in the valuable education I received as a biology student,” Kortum wrote. “In the classroom, it is clear that he dedicates his life to providing students with a quality education. Through his intense passion for biology and love of research, he has educated many future biologists, research scientists, veterinarians and doctors by promoting independent thinking and interactive learning.”

Because of Montana Western’s small size, Morrow says professors are able to better tailor a student’s education, individualizing research and classroom work to better prepare students for graduate studies and professional careers.

“Any student who wants to do research can do it,” Morrow says. “The caliber of education our biology students get is as good as any larger institution, and our students pay a fraction of the cost of other universities. We really do have tremendous research opportunities.”

As the fourth Professor of the Year in a row for Montana Western, Morrow says his honor as the 2012 Montana Professor of the Year continues to validate the University of Montana Western and the innovative Experience One program.

“I just think this is a really positive reflection of the quality of our biology program and the quality of education all students receive at Montana Western.”

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Background

The University of Montana Western, located in Dillon, Mont., is an innovative institution nestled in a scenic valley in the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Montana. The campus Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) for student enrollment is approximately 1,289. Montana Western has over 60 FTE faculty members, features small classes for all students and has been recognized for excellence by U.S. News and World Report. Montana Western’s small size and focus on education innovation have earned it the reputation of being a place where faculty and staff choose to collegially and creatively make a difference in the education of students. Montana Western is the first and only public four-year college in the nation to use block scheduling in which students take a single class at a time. This immersion learning program facilitates increased opportunities for experiential types of learning.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is an independent policy and research center that supports needed transformations in American education through tighter connections between teaching practice, evidence of student learning, the communication and use of this evidence, and structured opportunities to build knowledge. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the Council for Advancement and Support of Education is a professional association serving educational institutions and the advancement professionals at all levels who work in alumni relations, communications, fundraising, marketing and other areas.