UTSA biology professor Aaron Cassill is named 2013 Piper Professor

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Aaron Cassill

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(May 1, 2013) -- Aaron Cassill cannot remember a time when he didn't want to be a teacher, and was fortunate to have great role models beginning in elementary school. From each, he learned values that would shape his own teaching style. But, he credits his high school physics and chemistry teachers with instilling in him one simple philosophy that has guided his own success as a professor of science: If you're going to teach science, you have to be excited about it.

"A lot of what I try to do is make it clear to [students] that the science they're studying actually affects them in very important ways every day -- and that it's actually really cool."

A professor of biology in the College of Sciences, Cassill was selected as a recipient of the 2013 Piper Professor Award. The award established by the San Antonio-based Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation in 1958 annually recognizes 10 college professors in Texas for their academic, scientific and scholarly achievement.

He is the ninth UTSA faculty member to receive the award, following John Miller Morris, professor of geography, who was recognized last year.

"Aaron Cassill has a reputation across the university for his strong commitment to student success, both as an instructor and as a mentor," said John Frederick, provost and vice president of academic affairs. "We are thrilled to see him recognized and especially to have members of our faculty recognized by the Piper Foundation for two consecutive years. I believe that is a strong testament to the excellence of our entire faculty."

Born to two artists in Cleveland, Ohio, Cassill was raised in an environment of creativity and exploration; for him, that wonder and sense of discovery turned to the scientific world. When he was in high school, Cassill would ride his bicycle to the house of a family friend, a physics professor, to ask questions about "how the world worked." 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.

Cassill regularly offers the courses Principles of Molecular Biology, Contemporary Biology, Genetics, and the Honors Colloquium, "Science and Psychology of Everyday Life," which he teaches with his wife, psychology professor Mary McNaughton-Cassill.

His courses always are among the most popular at UTSA.

Writes one former student: "Every night, I could see the seats filled with smiling, eager faces because this was not just a lecture, but a discussion. Dr. Cassill would take the time to let us talk; his lessons would always spark questions from curious students, not because he had not explained a concept well, but because he inspired us to think outside the box."

When teaching biology, Cassill seeks to emphasize the complexity of life and encourage his students to traverse beyond the course's basic material. In his lectures, he makes the daunting details of biology accessible, draws relevant parallels between science and everyday life, and shares the mistakes and failures of some of the most exalted scientists to drive home his point that all great discoveries are realized through determination and curiosity rather than inherent genius.

"What I actually want them to do is to understand that there's no such thing as a known fact; everything is fluid," Cassill explains. "In a lot of ways, I want them to distrust knowledge and to trust themselves, and learn to think and rethink everything I tell them and see whether I was right or not."

Cassill's enthusiasm for teaching is not limited to the subject matter, but the art of pedagogy itself. He has participated in numerous education conferences, mentored several colleagues across disciplines on curriculum and course development, and is constantly pushing himself to innovate and experiment with his own craft. Among his numerous accolades, he earned a Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award from the University of Texas System in 2012, and earlier this year, he was inducted into UTSA's Academy of Distinguished Teaching Scholars.

His popularity stems not just from his captivating classroom lessons, but also his humor, kindness and approachability. His collaborations with students have produced numerous co-publications of research and scholarly papers. He is the director of the STEM Initiative for the College of Sciences and also associate director of the Minority Access to Research Careers and the Minority Biomedical Research Support programs.

"Dr. Aaron Cassill is an invaluable asset to the college," said College of Sciences Dean George Perry, "as he provides both a high level of superior instruction for our students in critical classes, and outstanding leadership in outreach to the community, to help generate future scientists our state so desperately needs."