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2011’s top teacher

November 21, 2011

  • News Image
    Greta Binford, 2011 Oregon Professor of the Year, talks with students
  • News Image
    Associate Professor of Biology Greta Binford holds a spider specimen

Biology-Psychology Hall

Students and spiders. Together they fuel the passion for teaching that makes Greta Binford the 2011 Oregon Professor of the Year.

“Greta Binford is an outstanding teacher, mentor, and colleague,” Jane Hunter, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said. “She embodies all of the qualities one thinks of when they consider what a professor should be.”

Binford accepted the honor from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education in a ceremony in Washington D.C. on November 17.

Since joining Lewis & Clark’s faculty in 2003, Binford, associate professor of biology, has immersed her students in scientific inquiry and encouraged them to learn about themselves while studying other species. Using spider diversity research as a hook, she fosters undergraduate exploration of issues surrounding science, evolution, biodiversity, and biodiversity loss.

“Greta came to every class with a smile and excitement for the vast diversity of parasites, spiders and sea creatures,” Rebecca Duncan ’06, a former student and collaborator, said. “Each day, she would tell us a different example of life’s bizarre diversity, such as a crustacean that parasitized a fish, eating and mechanically replacing the fish’s tongue, enabling itself to harvest nutrients when the fish eats. Her response to these unimaginable, real-life stories was always, ‘Evolution did that!’ Her enthusiasm is truly contagious.”

Empowering students
Greta is the kind of scientist I want to be. She experiences joy at discovery and learning, and fosters and encourages that in those around her. Sam ’08 I only hope she realizes how much she has affected and inspired her students, and that we will never forget how amazing she is!Laine ’08 It is readily apparent that Greta wants her students to love the subject matter as much as she does, and strives daily to help us make personal connections with the material. Micah ’10

Engaging students in advanced research opportunities, Binford collaborates with undergraduates in her laboratory and in the field. In the past five years, she has received $875,000 in grants to study spider behavior, evolutionary biology, and molecular biology and biochemistry.

“My career as a scientist began when my undergraduate genetics professor offered me a summer job studying spiders in Peru,” Binford said. “Twenty-plus years later, my central goal as an educator is to inspire another generation of undergraduates by introducing them to the vast amounts of biology we don’t know, immersing them in the scientific process, empowering them with skills for doing research, and introducing them to their own potential as scientists.”

Binford’s passion for venomous creatures and the joy with which she pursues them—into the basement of a Goodwill store in Los Angeles or out on a field expedition in South America—have caught the attention of many journalists and writers. In 2006, Burkhard Bilger accompanied her on several spider-tracking expeditions for a profile in The New Yorker (PDF). More recently, author Kathryn Lasky published a children’s book about Binford’s work, Silk and Venom: Searching for a Dangerous Spider. Binford has also been featured on PBS’s Nova and NPR’s Science Friday.

“My research program uses integrative, evolutionary approaches to better understand patterns of diversity in spider venoms,” Binford explained. “In my lab, students participate in evolutionary analysis of spider venoms at all levels of the process. This includes collecting a range of spiders in the field, doing protein analysis of the venoms, and using molecular approaches to study the genes that code for the venom proteins.”

Exceptional educators

The CASE/Carnegie honor for Binford is the latest in a string of awards highlighting Lewis & Clark’s commitment to excellence in teaching. Associate Professor of Psychology Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell received the Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor of the Year Award in 2008; the CASE/Carnegie prize is the only national award for excellence in undergraduate teaching and mentoring. This fall, two alumni garnered attention for outstanding teaching—Elena Garcia-Velasco M.A.T. ’97 received the 2011-12 Oregon Teacher of the Year award, and Maureen Daschel M.A.T. ’87 was named Outstanding Classroom Teacher by the Oregon Science Teachers Association. 

Additional resources

Learn more about Professor of the Year Greta Binford in this video from a recent profile by The Oregonian:

To learn more about spider research happening on campus, visit The Spiders of Lewis & Clark, a web-based initiative that Binford and her students launched in 2010 to share information about spiders found in Portland. 

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