The University of Texas at San Antonio Office of Student Life has invited Professor Aaron Cassill to deliver the inaugural "UTSA Last Lecture": his chosen last words to the campus community. This lecture format has become a widely appreciated tradition at universities across the country as a way to move past discipline-focused lectures and bring campus communities together to consider personal perspectives on the bigger-picture aspects of life. Come hear and see for yourself why Professor Cassill is consistently one of our best-loved faculty members.
Sometimes we look at the stars and feel incredibly small and insignificant. Other times we survey the universe and think that we might be the center of it. Coping with the infiniteness of space, and trying to match our resultant insignificance while still realizing our incredible potential requires the ability to comprehend the world around us in many different ways. A solid education requires learning how we twist our comprehension to bring all these realities into one basic vision.
"A portée de main"by Pierre Rennes
Malcolm Gladwell, Blink
Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness
Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit
Oliver Sacks, The Mind's Eye
Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
Barry Schwartz The Paradox of Choice. Why More is Less
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Flow
Jonah Lehrer How We Decide
Steven Johnson Everything Bad is Good For You
Professor Aaron Cassill teaches in the College of Science and was the winner of this year's Piper Foundation Award for outstanding achievement and the 2012 Regents' Award. He earned his B.A. at Harvard University and his Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego, before accepting a faculty position at UTSA in 1993.
Auspiciously influenced by great teachers since his elementary school years, Cassill has crafted his own unique pedagogy by emulating their examples of kindness, enthusiasm for sharing knowledge, and genuine interest in the maturation of one's students. He sees his students as individuals and believes that his responsibility as a teacher goes beyond providing them with information, but also in assisting them in becoming the people they wish to be.
In class, Cassill often illustrates biology's relevance to everyday life. He strives to show his students that there is no such thing as a fact, and that the pursuit of knowledge is an infinite progression, which they are all capable of contributing to.
"To me, teaching is about always moving forward and watching the limits of knowledge move out even further beyond us," he said. "But this is not discouraging; instead it is the best part of the adventure."
In his 18-year career at UTSA, Cassill has been a critical agent in the growth of the College of Sciences. He currently teaches Contemporary Biology, Genetics, and an Honors Colloquium (which he teaches with his wife, psychology professor Mary McNaughton-Cassill) called "Science and Psychology of Everyday Life"—all of which rapidly fill to capacity every semester.
When he teaches biology, Cassill said, "I want the students to always be aware of how amazing life is and how many complex layers go into even the most basic understanding of the material."
A sentiment shared among his students is that Cassill's courses are some of the most engaging and enjoyable offered at UTSA. "He conveys information on complicated scientific topics with impressive clarity, encouraging curiosity through frequent references to real-world applications and cutting-edge research," wrote one former student.
Cassill is also active in promoting interest in science and mathematics from all age levels in San Antonio's public school system. He is the director of STEM Initiatives for the College of Science and the associate director of the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) and the Minority Biomedical Research Scientists (MBRS) programs.
"By strengthening pre-college education, he increases options and opportunities for UTSA students well before they arrive at UTSA," said geology professor Stuart Birnbaum. "His approach is much like gardening: sow the seeds, nurture the growing plant, and harvest the fruits of that labor."Story by Connor McBrearty. Photo by Patrick Ray Dunn.
Over the years on many college campuses across the country, outstanding professors have been selected and charged with a somewhat imposing task—"If you had but one last opportunity to speak to students, what wisdom would you wish to impart?"
The origin of the "Last Lecture" concept is uncertain, but it may have started at Stanford University in the 1930's with Harry Rathbun, Professor of Law. Professor Rathbun began the practice of devoting his last business law lecture of each semester to a discussion on the meaning of life. Over the next three decades, until his retirement in 1959, the annual tradition called "Harry's Last Lecture" grew in popularity and needed a larger venue to accommodate a greatly expanded audience.
Numerous universities in the decades since have hosted last lecture series with a similar theme. In 2013, The Office of Student Life will initiate the UTSA Last Lecture series with an inaugural lecture by Dr. Aaron Cassill, recipient of the 2013 Piper Professor Award.