Instructor Spotlight – George Haughn

Photo by Elaine Simons

Hi, I am a Professor of Genetics (soon to be emeritus) in the Department of Botany.  I have a B.Sc. in Biology with honours in Genetics from Dalhousie University and a Ph.D. in Genetics from Cornell University. My postdoctoral research was completed at the U.S. Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory at Michigan State University.

At an early age, I developed a strong interest in teaching (grade seven) and genetic research (grade eleven) and throughout my career was lucky enough to be able to do both. My first job was as an assistant/associate professor in the Biology Department at the University of Saskatchewan (1987-1993). In 1993, I accepted an offer of associate professor at U.B.C.  where I have been ever since.

My research over the last 40 years involved the use of molecular genetics to study plant biology. The principal areas of study were floral morphogenesis (1987- 2008), development of a facility devoted to the reverse genetic technique of TILLING (2000-2014) and synthesis of plant cell wall polysaccharides by the seed coat epidermis (1996-2022).

Giving my first lectures to my collection of stuffed animals at age three.

Happily, my teaching has been primarily in the area of genetics both at the University of Saskatchewan (Introductory Genetics, Developmental Genetics) and here at UBC (Biol 335, Molecular Genetics; Biol 334/234, Introductory Genetics; Biol 452, Plant Developmental Genetics; Biol 433, Plant Genetics).

What do you most enjoy about being an instructor?

I love the challenge of taking complex concepts and breaking them down into a series of simpler ones that are easier for a student, new to the subject, to grasp. It is fun to interact with students and I find the most rewarding time to be immediately after a lecture when I spend as much time as needed to answer the questions of those who stayed to ask.

How would you describe your teaching style?

I use a traditional lecture style to outline the key principles and punctuate this with a variety of examples and interactive activities to illustrate the principles and maintain interest. To achieve success in the latter, I need the students’ help to identify their main points of confusion. I get this help through a variety of different types of feedback but especially appreciate the valuable feedback that clicker questions provide. In addition, I try to find ways to bring students together since they tend to learn as much from each other as they do from me.

What is something that you are currently doing in your teaching that you are excited about?

In my fourth-year course in plant genetics, my co-instructors and I teach how the power of genetic analysis can be used to study any topic in biology. We choose topics in plant biology that have been the focus of active genetic analyses, provide the background information that was available prior to the start of the study and slowly add data in the order it was obtained historically. In this way students have an opportunity to experience how a research topic under genetics analysis evolves. Students obtain and interpret “new” data at each step, allowing them to pose new questions and shape hypotheses as they go. We found this approach to be an effective way for students to do science in a classroom and believe the same approach could be used in other areas of plant biology.

What is a memorable anecdote from your own undergraduate experience?

When I was an undergraduate, I had no interest in plant biology. When I came to choose a laboratory in which to do my honours genetic research, the only laboratory available was one that did research on chloroplast genetics in the single celled alga Chlamydomonas reinhardii. When quizzed by my potential supervisor about my background knowledge, I was forced to admit that I had never taken a course on plant biology. The condition for acceptance into the lab was that I had to take courses in plant physiology and plant development, a condition that ultimately led to my career in plant genetics.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Anything active that does not involve staring at the computer. Most frequently, playing and umpiring field hockey, hiking, walking, long-distance running, skiing and very soon, biking.

What is a fun fact about you that people may not know?

From the time I was a freshman at Dalhousie University (1975) to just after getting a job at the University of Saskatchewan (1990), my main leisure activity was skydiving. I made 1189 jumps during these years. In order to afford this habit, as a starving graduate student, I worked as a skydiving instructor at my friend’s parachute centre (John King, Fingerlakes Skydivers) in Ovid, New York on weekends. I trained several hundred students including a young assistant professor in my department (Tom Fox, Genetics Department) at Cornell University. The last jump I made (#1190) was in 2018 in Nova Scotia, a tandem jump at a different friend’s parachute centre (David Williamson, Atlantic School of Skydiving). Dave and I took the course together in 1975. What goes around comes around.

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