The Johns Hopkins Gazette: August 3, 1998
August 3, 1998
VOL. 27, NO. 41


New Biology Chair Discusses Plans

Interview: Victor Corces would like to expand the curriculum and have more small classes

Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

When Victor Corces stares out his office window in Mudd Hall on the Homewood campus, he wishes he had a different view. In fact, he wished he had no view at all.

Given the choice, the grass-filled courtyard at which Corces now looks would be the building's new wing, complete with an auditorium, several biology labs and additional classroom space.

"The building is now a U," Corces says with a smile. "I'd like to see it a square."

It's not that Corces has anything against open space, but he is concerned about the amount of space that students and faculty have as enrollment continually increases in the department. And although his concern is nothing new, these days he feels he's in more of a position to do something about it.

As the chairman of the Biology Department in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Victor Corces would like to expand course offerings--and perhaps even facilities--in order to give students a more intimate classroom experience and a more diverse education in the field.

Since taking over July 1 as chairman of the Biology Department in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Corces has set his sights on a number of initiatives he thinks will improve what he feels is already a first-rate biology department. Among them are increasing classroom space, adding to the course curriculum and emphasizing more teacher-professor interaction. Speaking with an optimistic tone, Corces says this forward thinking is all part of his responsibilities as the new chairman.

"I have to keep this place going," says Corces, dressed casually in jeans and a polo shirt. "I have to not only make sure this department works but that it gets better."

Corces, the former director of graduate studies admissions for the Biology Department, is known to fellow professors as an outstanding teacher and as someone who has a solid rapport with both graduate and undergraduate students--reasons that made Corces a perfect choice for chairman, according to former chair Richard McCarty.

"I always thought his level of effort, good judgment and quality of concern for teaching and the department in general would make him an effective advocate for the department," says McCarty, biology professor and senior adviser for faculty affairs. "He has a lot of good ideas and a really novel way of looking at things."

McCarty adds that as director of graduate studies admissions, Corces had done a "fantastic job" at recruitment.

"He was tremendous at attracting first-rate graduate students," McCarty says. "[And] we all marveled at the way he tackled problems head on."

Corces earned his doctoral degree in biochemistry from the Autonoma University of Madrid in his native Spain. He moved to the United States to conduct postdoctoral research at Harvard University, where he studied under renowned biologist Matt Meselson. It was at Harvard that Corces began his research in DNA and developmental genetics.

Corces began his career at Johns Hopkins in 1982 as an assistant professor. Yet despite being primarily a biochemist and molecular biologist, Corces' first job here was to teach a course in developmental biology.

"Somehow they decided I was a developmental biologist, although I wasn't," Corces says. "My expertise was more in molecular genetics and gene variation. But as a consequence of teaching that class, I have become more and more interested in developmental biology over the years."

Yet Corces admits that his first year of teaching was a humbling experience. The pressure to produce research results as a young professor was so great, he said, that he didn't take the teaching side of his job as seriously as he should have.

"I remember that first year when the students had to fill out the evaluations for the class. Whey they came back, there were things written like, 'Send this guy back to Spain,'" Corces laughs. "I think that actually shocked me, and I knew that I wasn't doing this right. But after that point I started to put a lot more of my time into preparing for classes and trying to do a good job teaching."

As part of his dogma as the new chairman, Corces says he feels it's important that students have a chance to develop relationships with their professors. According to Corces, the problem is that some biology classes have such large enrollments- -in some cases up to 300 students--it's currently difficult for professors to give that kind of personal attention.

"When students apply to medical school, they need three or four letters of recommendation, but they realize they don't know anybody," Corces says, citing one problem he sees.

Corces says he is trying to confront this problem by expanding the curriculum to offer a more diversified program, with courses such as immunology and genetic-based studies. His thinking is that with a greater variety, students, say in the sophomore year, could take smaller classes of 15 to 20 students and get to know the professors.

A greater course selection will also solve what Corces feels is another problem with the biology program: that most students can and do complete their undergraduate study in three years, because they've already taken the requisite number of courses, then head straight to medical school.

"By having different courses for their senior year, I think that students would be more interested in staying," Corces says. "I think they would also diversify their education in biology" and perhaps lead them to pursue graduate studies in biology rather than medicine.

"I think the market will be huge for the biotech sector," he says, "and there will be even more jobs [than there are now] in basic research as faculty members at universities. I think that biology majors should reflect that trend--that majors would want to go on to a Ph.D. program in biology."

However, Corces knows that in order to offer extra courses either existing faculty need to teach more or additional faculty added. Corces says this is an area, as he deals with both faculty and administration, where his diplomatic and people skills will come in handy.

Today, as both teacher and researcher and now as administrator, Corces says he certainly has a full plate of responsibilities, almost to the point that he has found it hard to practice what he preaches.

"As far as devoting my time to everything, I feel that my lab has suffered the most," Corces says. "That is the irony of it."