By Rob Mitchum
Photo by Stacey Shintani

Endocrinology is so important … It relates to metabolism, growth, reproduction … It’s just a really exciting field, and that’s one of the things I want to get across when I teach students.”
—Ronald Cohen

College is often described as a time of runaway hormones. Endocrinologist Ronald Cohen wants UChicago students to understand the important job those hormones play in the human body.

“Endocrinology is so important for who we are,” says Cohen. “It relates to metabolism, growth, reproduction, all sorts of really important things on a day-to-day basis. It’s just a really exciting field, and that’s one of the things I want to get across when I teach students who have no experience in the subject.”

Cohen’s advocacy for hormones is clearly drumming up interest around campus. Since expanding a single course for undergraduates to a three-course track six years ago, Cohen and his fellow teachers have seen their class lists balloon from 20 students to more than 100. Attracting both students with plans for medical school or laboratory research and even some students from unrelated majors, Cohen has turned a specialized field into a topic of broad appeal.

Endocrinology: A Fascinating Subject

“Some students are just interested to understand how their own bodies work,” Cohen says. “I think some people, even if they don’t want to go into biology or medicine, find it to be a fascinating subject on their own and so decide to take the course.”

That diverse range of students benefits from Cohen’s approach to teaching, which he emphasized is less about rote memorization of facts and figures and more about learning how to apply knowledge. Mixing in research papers, case studies, patient testimonials, and images, Cohen tries to give students perspective on the role hormones play in the body, both when they are functioning properly and when they go clinically awry.

A visitor to the class might stumble upon a lecture hall full of students groping their necks, searching for their thyroid gland—Cohen’s favorite organ of the endocrine system. Or they might be viewing pictures of a patient who suddenly developed a mysterious darkening of the skin — a telltale sign of adrenal insufficiency.

“I don’t want them to memorize clinical facts, I want to show them that if something goes wrong with a basic developmental or biological process, how that can influence real people,” Cohen says. “It’s nice to show them right up front something like where their thyroid gland actually is to make the basic science seem immediate and important.”

‘In medicine, you’re constantly involved in teaching’

Ironically for a teacher of undergraduates, Cohen himself did not take a course in endocrinology until medical school. A math major at Harvard University, he earned his first teaching experience as a teaching assistant for undergraduate calculus classes. Medical school at Cornell University and residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston further refined his educational talents. “In medicine from the very beginning, you’re constantly involved in teaching,” Cohen says.

After joining the University of Chicago Medical Center faculty in 2000, Cohen began teaching endocrinology to medical students a handful of times a year. But eager to return to undergraduate teaching, Cohen worked with fellow faculty members Matthew Brady (a 2007 Quantrell recipient), Helen Kim, Yan Chun Li, Mark Musch, and Andrew Wolfe, to create a three-course menu of endocrinology, spanning from cell signaling to physiology and pathophysiology. Cohen said teaching his undergraduates is a fulfilling change of pace from his duties in the clinic and laboratory.

“One of the real joys of teaching undergraduates is that the students have really chosen to take our course. They truly are interested in the subject for the subject’s sake,” he says.

And Cohen emphasized that the opportunity for medical faculty and undergraduates to interact was a special benefit of the Medical Center, medical school, and main campus sitting in close proximity.

“The University of Chicago has a unique situation that actually enables people in the medical school to get involved in undergraduate education, which I think is great for both parts of the University,” Cohen says. “I think it is important for the undergraduates who are interested in these topics to get additional perspectives on the field, and I think it’s important for us, because it’s fun to teach the undergraduates. It’s a bonus of working at Chicago to be able to do that, and I’ve just really enjoyed it.”

Originally published on June 14, 2010.