Dr. John Bell has a Ph. D in Physiology and Pharmacology from the University of California, San Diego. He is the Dean of Undergraduate Education and a professor in the Department of Physiology and Developmental Biology.
Q: What made you pursue physiology and pharmacology all the way to a Ph. D?
I wanted to be a scientist from the time I was a child. I discovered as an undergraduate student that I really liked a mixture of chemistry, physics and biology. Those disciplines offered that opportunity, as well as being disciplines in the life sciences, that are a bit more practical in terms of employment than some others that also interested me. There are both industrial as well as academic opportunities there. Academic opportunities in institutions like BYU that are predominately undergraduate as well as places that have professional schools, such as medical school, dental school and things like that. It offered me an opportunity to pursue my interests as well as provide a wide range of potential employment.
Q: Are you currently involved in any research or academic projects?
That’s all I do. I have administrative responsibilities for General Education, Honors and Freshman Year. The director of our Honors Program and I were just discussing some of the ideas of where the Honors Program might go. So, I’m constantly involved in projects. In my research lab I study cell membranes and the physics of some of the molecules that are embedded in the cell membrane and how that impacts certain pathological situations involved with cancers and involved with inflammatory diseases. I would say the work I do is more basic than applied. That means it’s more in terms of identifying an understanding of what exists in nature. Other researchers, whose interest are more in the direction of application, take that information and apply it in ways to generate treatment.
Q: How has student-teacher interaction changed for you since becoming the Dean of Undergraduate Education?
There has been a change in what courses I teach because I felt an increased need to teach courses in the Honors Program or General Education. For many years I’ve taught somewhat in those arenas, now I certainly think more about what happens in a course that I teach in General Education as well as for majors. I think in terms of General Education more than I used to. I have the opportunity of teaching in some situations that I would not have predicted. For example, I teach a course in mathematical modeling and a course in statistics for students that have specific kinds of backgrounds. While I’ve had expertise in those areas in terms of my research and training, I’ve never imagined myself teaching those things because I’m not a member of those faculties. My interactions with Honors and General Education have offered me the opportunity to participate in those things where it would have otherwise not have happened.
Q: What is your personal teaching philosophy?
It is to focus on student learning, what the student is doing, what’s happening in the student’s head and focus on helping students be empowered so that they have a very deep and thorough understanding. The goal is expertise, really. Students come as novices and the goal is that by the end of the course they’re experts. Not about everything, but what is in the course; they have expertise in those areas. My job is to help them make the transition from being a novice to being an expert. That means I need to understand what the characteristics of an expert are, and make those transparent to the student. Then I help the student learn whether they are acquiring those characteristics, whether those are things in their possession or are not yet acquired. That refocuses the student’s attention away from the study guide idea that if they memorize the words and say something intelligent about these concepts they’ll be fine to saying, “Am I an expert or not? Can I apply these? Can I solve problems? Can I think, talk and write about these? Do I thoroughly understand them? Do I own them?” That means there needs to be effort in reflection. It’s what we call metacognitive skills, where the student learns to evaluate their own understanding and assess whether they do or don’t own them. It helps them to identify misconceptions and ways to resolve them, as well as identify resources that would be helpful. It’s whole different strategy than simply reviewing notes, which is a potential challenge in a discipline that is information-rich. My philosophy is to help them develop their true understanding and expertise.
Q: How has your experience been at BYU?
I love it! There are three things in particular that make me love it: the students, my colleagues and the Spirit. I love the students and I love my colleagues. It’s a lot of fun to come to work and interact with the professors, share ideas and grow intellectually. That doesn’t mean we always agree, it doesn’t mean we don’t bump heads from time to time. But, I have participated at some other universities and have consulted with other universities on their educational programs. I have had the opportunity to see how negative inter-faculty relationships might be. My experience here has been quite different from that. It is a great pleasure to come to work each day. I love the positive attitudes and maturity that is generally prevalent among students. It makes it a pleasure to work with them and help them learn. I love the spirit that I feel here. Many sacred conversations and experiences have occurred for me here.
For the Copy Desk: Dr. Bell went through the transcription and made a few edits and additions so as to not be misrepresented or misinterpreted. It would be a nice gesture to email him if you take something out. His email is: