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Week of 3 June 2005· Vol. VIII, No. 31

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Hunger for this: Metcalf honorees teach with wisdom, grace, compassion

Prior to the All-University Commencement, President ad interim Aram Chobanian greets Metcalf winners Akihiro Kanamori (from left), John Carroll McManama, and John E. Straub. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Prior to the All-University Commencement, President ad interim Aram Chobanian greets Metcalf winners Akihiro Kanamori (from left), John Carroll McManama, and John E. Straub. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Dynamic dentist McManama wins top teacher award

By Jessica Ullian

Students at the Goldman School of Dental Medicine are effusive in their praise of John Carroll McManama, calling him “awesome,” “interesting,” and “enthusiastic.” One proposes that the professor of general dentistry receive a “Lifetime Best Teacher” award; another, moved by his dynamic classroom manner, suggests “stand-up dental comedy” as a second career.

But the most compelling evidence of McManama’s effect on his students is the number of them who have remained at the University to become his colleagues and friends.

“I have been acquainted with Dr. McManama for the past 11 years, first as a dental student and subsequently as a colleague in private practice,” writes M. Marianne Jurasic (SDM’95), an assistant clinical professor at SDM. “When I look back on my years in the profession of dentistry, Dr. McManama is the teacher, mentor, friend that has both inspired and challenged me to achieve my greatest potential.”

The sentiment — echoed by many other students and faculty — earned McManama, known to his friends and colleagues as “Carl,” the 2005 Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching, the University’s highest teaching honor. The award, presented at Commencement, carries with it a prize of $10,000, and is awarded based on nominations from students, faculty, and alumni.

McManama, a Boston native who attended Boston College and Loyola University, joined the SDM faculty in 1976 and has been “a workhorse of the school ever since,” according to Judith A. Jones, the chairwoman of the department of general dentistry. He has served as chairman of the department of operative dentistry and as a professor in the department of restorative sciences and biomaterials, and he teaches 17 percent of the entire predoctoral curriculum at the school, a teaching load that includes 190 lecture hours each year. In his years at the school, McManama has taught more than 4,300 students.

He is widely recognized for his work in developing new and innovative learning tools, such as the Simulation Learning Center, a preclinical lab he designed, where students can practice on mannequins before treating actual patients. Former student Shahin Madi (SDM’04) calls it “an amazing environment to fire up your practice drills.”

Outside of the classroom, McManama works in both the simulation center and in the school’s clinic, where he helps students as well as faculty perfect their “chair-side manner,” writes Jones. “He is a sought-after mentor for junior faculty, and they and more seasoned faculty literally vie for spots in his preclinical courses.”

In addition, McManama has a private practice in Cambridge, giving him a perspective on practicing dentistry that is highly valued by his students. His focus on the practical applications of the skills and techniques learned in the classroom — always explained, students and faculty say, with clarity and wit — is well known and much admired in the SDM community. “Explained very clearly with a lot of relevance to real world dentistry,” writes a student in the operative dentistry class. “Presented material in a way that relates to the way things are in private practice,” according to another.

He has previously been honored with SDM’s Spencer N. Frankl Excellence in Teaching Award and the Volunteer Hero Award from the Massachusetts Dental Society, and he has served as chief marshal at SDM’s graduation ceremony every year since 1987.

“This is a wonderful honor for both Carl and the School of Dental Medicine,” says Spencer N. Frankl, dean of SDM. “Carl is a perfect example of what a teacher should be — knowledgeable, dedicated, engaging, and compassionate.”

Delving deeply into math, chemistry

By Brian Fitzgerald and Tim Stoddard

The University this year presented a Metcalf Award for Teaching Excellence, with its $5,000 prize, to Akihiro Kanamori and John E. Straub.

Panache enriches math

Critical to both mathematics and philosophy, the subject of logic is truly interdisciplinary. Akihiro Kanamori is at home in all these fields.

Kanamori, a CAS professor of mathematics and statistics, also makes students feel at home in his classroom with his dry wit and concern for each individual. Hearty praise from them is punctuated with such adjectives as “wise,” “benevolent,” and “generous.” He teaches with patience and passion, and his knowledge of the history of mathematics is legendary.

Kanamori “inhabits the landscape of his discipline so completely that he can speak of 19th-century mathematicians as if they were his neighbors,” according to his award citation, “conveying to students not just the concepts they discovered and formulated, but also a very real sense of who they truly were.”

An authority on the history of set theory, the mathematical science of the infinite, he has a seemingly endless store of anecdotes. “In some lectures,” writes a student, “he will briefly mention an obscure mathematician whose work and ideas are closely related to the topic at hand, and will go so far as to describe a detail, often an amusing one, from the mathematician’s life.”

Some students mention his graceful, almost courtly classroom presence. He seems to “glide into the room at the beginning of each class,” writes a computer science major, who describes Kanamori as a “wise grandfather,” adding that every day “he shows us the exquisite perfection that underlies what he does.”

Kanamori “helped me acquire a strong foundation in mathematical logic, and did so with panache and humor,” according to another student. A sophomore SED student writes, “From day one he made us feel completely comfortable in his classroom. He never pressured any of us to answer, but he was so encouraging to anyone who spoke that we all participated.”

Another student echoes that sentiment: “As a philosophy major in a class mostly composed of math and computer science majors, I was quite intimidated. However, when I was confronted with extremely difficult material, Professor Kanamori took the time to make sure that everyone was on the same page. I really appreciated that he did not treat me like an outsider and took my questions seriously. He was always available outside of class and had a great deal of patience with my constant questioning.”

His accessibility also impressed a Ph.D. computer science student. “On countless occasions,” he writes, “Professor Kanamori has guided me through my disorientation and helped me see the ‘big picture’ behind a mathematical idea.”

Kanamori’s unique take on the material he teaches included a “description of racism as a misapplication of the Generalization Meta-Theorem,” writes a philosophy major. “This sounds ridiculous at first, but actually makes perfect sense. To put it simply, the error resides in making a universal generalization from a particular case. But really, who else would have ever seen that connection in such an obscure context?”

“Teachers who instill in their students a thirst for greater knowledge have truly mastered the art of their vocation,” reads his award citation. “Professor Kanamori is such a teacher.”

Chemistry’s lenses

The most important ingredient in any good chemistry lecture, says John Straub, is enthusiasm. “As a teacher, if you’re not excited to share your ideas with your students, how can you expect them to do the hard work of actually mastering the ideas? You can’t.”

Straub, a CAS professor of chemistry and winner of a 2005 Metcalf Award, enlivens the introductory and advanced chemistry courses he teaches with genuine passion. One former student describes him as “a clear, and at times outrageously funny, lecturer. He is the most inspired, hardworking, and approachable professor I have ever met.”

Internationally recognized for his research in theoretical and computational chemistry and biophysics, Straub says that “the strongest argument for studying chemistry is the same one that compels us to study history, literature, or religion: to enrich the way one sees the world. Individuals who do not have a ‘chemical lens’ are missing a great deal of beauty and wonder.”

Straub teaches courses at many levels, and he expects all his students to be active learners. “What separates the very good scientist from the okay scientist is the ability to ask questions that matter,” he says. “It is essential to teach students to answer questions, but it is just as important to teach them to ask good questions.”

Chemistry education, in Straub’s view, necessarily involves learning to think clearly and with sophistication. As director of graduate studies in the chemistry department from 2000 to 2004, for instance, he created a summer writing course for first- and second-year graduate students that focuses on the art and craft of writing research papers, grant proposals, dissertations, and memos and letters. The course, which also addressed issues of academic conduct and ethics, was expanded into a required course for all first-year doctoral chemistry students.

A former doctoral student says that although Staub “is attentive to his graduate students, he also allows them the space and freedom that is essential to learning. The freedom that I had as a graduate student taught me to work independently and to think critically.” One of Straub’s colleagues concurs that students learn from him “not only top science, but also a very productive and focused approach toward problem-solving.”

Straub, who has taught at BU since 1990, says he values teaching because it keeps researchers “forever in touch with the key, fundamental ideas in their subjects. In an industrial research lab, it is easier to become a narrow specialist and to see your understanding of fundamental ideas erode. Not so at a university, where your understanding of those ideas is constantly reinforced and challenged through interactions with students.”

Outside of the University, Straub serves on a number of boards advancing scientific education in primary and secondary schools. He is a member of the Gifted and Talented Parent Advisory Board for the town of Brookline, where he has taught a popular course on the science of rocketry to elementary public school children.

In the eight-week class, entitled It Is Rocket Science, Straub helps kids at Lincoln School design, build, and launch model rockets. “I grew up during NASA’s Apollo Program, and like so many children of the day was amazed by, and in love with, rocketry,” he says. “It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to share that interest with young children, and it is a way to keep my inner child alive; that serves my research and teaching at BU.”


3 June 2005
Boston University
Office of University Relations