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Dr. Rizzino receives 2007 UNMC Faculty Mentor of the Year Award

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A. “Angie” Rizzino, Ph.D.

A. “Angie” Rizzino, Ph.D., came of age in the intellectually turbulent 1960s. When his own graduate studies were interrupted by turmoil related to the Vietnam War, he decided to seek a high school science teaching position.

During his interview, Dr. Rizzino was asked a simple question. More than 40 years later his answer remains the hallmark of his vision as a biomedical researcher/educator.

“I was asked, which came first, my students or my subject,” said Dr. Rizzino, professor and program director of UNMC’s Eppley Institute, who is the 2007 UNMC Faculty Mentor of the Year. “Without the slightest hesitation, I said, ‘My students come first.’

“Around that time, I had read a book by Jonathan Holt, titled, ‘Why Children Fail.’ There was a passage where Holt explained his belief that the teacher’s mission was to infuse students with the love for learning. Nobody can know what they will need to know in the future, so the real goal of education was to help students become self-learners who will know when they need more knowledge and have the skills to obtain it.

“I remember reading that passage and thinking, ‘that’s exactly how I feel.’ And it still is to this very day.”

Dr. Rizzino said his own education, alone, was enough to convince him that mentoring is fundamentally all about teaching students how to think for themselves. Education, especially back in the 1960s, heavily emphasized just knowing a lot of information.

The problem was that Dr. Rizzino soon forgot a lot of it. He’s known for a long time that what a student takes away are the skills learned, not the facts and mountains of data.

“For scientists, most of what we need to know isn’t known today,” Dr. Rizzino said. “So what they will need to know 10 years from now, they will have to learn on their own. That’s probably why I don’t put as much emphasis on course work — the student is going to forget a lot of it anyway — and instead focus on developing the individual student’s learning style.”

There are two main rules Dr. Rizzino applies to his students. The first rule is to be flexible. The second rule is that there are no other rules. He counsels that science is about understanding the big question and seeing the big picture.

Dr. Rizzino wants students to learn how to ask the right questions, to read with purpose and understand what questions the authors are seeking to answer. This approach is fundamentally about guiding students to love the hunt for knowledge and to realize that they don’t need to reinvent the wheel in the future as they develop their careers.

In fact, there are four essential qualities that Dr. Rizzino believes all students require to find critical success in life — not just in grad school, but life in general. They are:

  • A healthy amount of drive;
  • A healthy level of self confidence — which Dr. Rizzino said differs from arrogance;
  • The abiliy to get along with people; and
  • The ability to assimilate information and use it to develop and evaluate new ideas.

Having all four of these capabilities can help a person become really good at any chosen endeavor. Lacking one of them can be a problem and scientists need all four.

Facts about Dr. Rizzino

Dr. Rizzino:

  • Received doctorate in molecular biology in 1974 from the State University of New York;
  • Was a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow from 1974-1977 at the University of California-San Francisco and University of California-San Diego;
  • Joined the Eppley Institute as an assistant professor in December 1983;
  • Received the UNMC Outstanding Teaching Award in 1994;
  • Was named principal investigator of the Cancer Biology Training Grant in 1995;
  • Is married with a teenage daughter;
  • Likes to hike in the mountains and enjoys huge panoramic vistas. He finds them mentally refreshing and will reflect on such views when dealing with tough problems at home and work.

“Most students can do the job, but it’s a matter of looking at all four of these core capabilities and determining what needs most to improve,” Dr. Rizzino said. “Many students come with good abilities to tackle problems, but may lack self-confidence. The system is very good at whispering into students’ ears ‘You’re not that good.’ My job is to help students understand that they can be better than they are right now, but that the benchmark is themselves not anybody else.”

For example, Dr. Rizzino said, communication skills are very important. He never allows a student to give a seminar presentation without really working with that student. It is critical for students that, after presenting to faculty and peers, they genuinely feel that they did a good job, he said.

The key to allowing students to be successful is to make sure that they haven’t been set up to fail.

“When students first come into the lab, their primary concern is that I will think they are asking dumb questions,” Dr. Rizzino said. “My primary concern is to make sure that they are not afraid to expose their weaknesses. They have to trust me. I’ve been around the block enough times to know when somebody is trying to mask their weaknesses. It makes it harder to deal with them because I need for them to trust me enough to say, ‘I’m not very good at this.’ Now the door is open for me to help them.”

Brian Boer is an M.D./Ph.D. student who will complete his doctorate in May and return to the College of Medicine for his final two years of medical school. He recommended Dr. Rizzino for the mentor’s award after collecting 11 testimonial letters from fellow classmates and faculty.

“Dr. Rizzino’s accessibility is highlighted over and over,” Boer said. “He’s not just available to meet with us, but keeps excellent track of where each of us is in our education. When he consults with us on our work, he is really informed about our progress and accurately pinpoints where we need to go.

“In addition, Dr. Rizzino is known for not just watching over his own lab students. Lots of students from other labs will come to Dr. Rizzino for advice. They know he is dedicated to teaching all grad students and if he offers to be an adviser, he’s really going to be there for you.”

Dr. Rizzino also believes having a sense of humor is really important in dealing with students. He likes to kid around a lot and never misses an opportunity to tell a joke.

“Humor makes students laugh and relaxes people,” Dr. Rizzino said. “Relaxed people actually focus better than someone who is nervous and uptight. I want students to work hard, but also to understand that we are here to enjoy life, too. In presentations I especially try to have a humorous story that ties in nicely with the scientific point I’m trying to make.”

After several decades of watching students come through his lab and go on onward and upward, it still never gets old for Dr. Rizzino.

“Good scientists, in the true sense of the word, are people who create new information and new ideas and move the field forward in a real vertical fashion,” Dr. Rizzino said. “It takes dedication and the proper skills. I made a decision years ago that I wanted to be part of training the next generation of scientists and I haven’t been disappointed in my life’s work.”