By Megan Doherty
Photo by Robert Kozloff

Ilya Ruvinsky integrates developmental, genomic, and computational approaches to study the evolution of genes and gene functions. A growing interest in the Ruvinsky lab is to understand how organisms cope with chronic stress.

Who were some of your teaching mentors?

One of the very best classes, and certainly the toughest, I ever took was with Tom Silhavy at Princeton. Ostensibly, it was devoted to the study of bacterial genetics, but in reality it was so much more. It was a terrifically challenging introduction to the “hows” and “whys” of doing research. And although my class is quite different in organization than Tom’s, I am trying to convey the same intense excitement of doing science.

What are some of your best experiences teaching?

Without a doubt it is during those moments when students make connections between previously (seemingly) unrelated concepts, when they get excited and debate each other, when they come up with novel ways of approaching problems.

What do you most hope your students take away from your courses?

That life in science has to be a pursuit of passion—the road is too tough and tedious, unless you feel that you simply must know the answers. That sometimes the answers remain elusive, no matter how hard we try. That many problems benefit from being considered from a variety of perspectives.

What does receiving the Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring mean to you?

I am enormously grateful. I really enjoy teaching this class and am happy that students have found it interesting and hopefully even useful.

Can you talk a bit about your teaching methods?

The core element of the class is reading primary literature. Students have to become familiar not only with the most recent advances, but also with the history of ideas in the field. Perhaps even more importantly, they have to learn to read papers in detail, extract salient points, present their ideas, and chart directions for future investigation.

In poring over these papers together, we are trying to understand how successful experimental programs are designed and how we come to know what (we think) we know. In a way, the structure of the class reflects current research in biology in that it is interdisciplinary. We consider a small number of basic concepts from multiple points of view. We read papers on evolutionary genetics, developmental biology, genomics, etc., and are trying to find ways in which they support or contradict each other.

This has attracted students from a variety of departments and programs. I enjoy the diversity of perspectives they bring to the class and hope they find it enriching as well. I see my primary role as guiding the overall direction of the conversation. Fortunately for the instructors at the University of Chicago, the students are very good, and their enthusiasm takes it from there—often in fun and unexpected directions.

Originally published on June 3, 2013.