Mary E. Peek: CTL Undergraduate Educator Award

Motto: “I have not taught until students have learned.”

For her excellence in teaching, education innovations, and passion for undergraduate education, Mary E. Peek has been selected to receive the 2017 Georgia Tech CTL Undergraduate Educator Award. Peek is a coordinator of the Biochemistry Laboratory Program in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“Teaching is my calling in life,” Peek says. “The classroom and laboratory feel like home to me. I enjoy engaging with students and opening their eyes to the beauty of biochemistry. After 17 years of teaching at Georgia Tech, my motto is still, ‘I have not taught until students have learned.’”

So that students will learn, Peek has re-invented the biochemistry lab curriculum to make it relevant, while emphasizing state-of-the-art techniques and problems. For example, one of her experiments is a mock crime scene investigation. Students have to apply analytical chemistry, data analysis, and critical thinking to determine the source of DNA in a crime scene from a list of suspects.  

Another experiment calls to mind recent outbreaks of infectious diseases. Acting as researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, students test mock samples from patients in cities across the U.S. for the presence of antigens to Ebola virus, HIV, or influenza. From their data, they recommend cities to be quarantined to prevent a disease outbreak.

So that students will learn, Peek has pursued resources to upgrade teaching facilities and support curriculum innovations. For example, a she won a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to purchase research-grade fluorometers. These optical spectroscopy instruments enabled her to design experiments on protein folding, ligand binding, and enzyme activity. With these instruments, even freshmen students are exposed to real biochemistry.

Recently, Peek won another NSF grant for a project called “Threading Flavones.” The idea is to use a class of compounds – flavones in this case – as the centerpiece of experiments that link organic synthesis and biochemistry laboratory courses. Students in the organic synthesis lab prepare the compounds, while the students in the biochemistry lab test the compounds for activity against a marker of cancer.

This strategy, Peek says, aims “to promote retention of learning, critical thinking, and a heightened appreciation for the relevance of chemistry and biochemistry to human health.” 

Such is Peek’s passion for teaching, which has touched the lives of many undergraduates taking biochemistry. By her compassion, students who waver in confidence are encouraged; those who are lost or struggling are guided.

Peek’s contributions have benefitted not only hundreds of students at Georgia Tech, but also colleagues and members of the chemistry education committee, says School of Chemistry and Biochemistry Chair M.G. Finn.  Peek, he adds, is a “force at Georgia Tech and nationally in chemistry and biochemistry education.”  

 “Being recognized with the 2017 CTL Undergraduate Educator Awards has been a great honor for me,” Peek says. “I am so thankful to have had the pleasure to serve Georgia Tech students for many years.”

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A. Maureen Rouhi, Ph.D.
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