In her lectures, Laurie Santos inspires curiosity and potential colleagues

Known internationally for her research on primate learning and how it compares with that of humans, Laurie Santos hopes that her students become as awed as she is by learning science.
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Known internationally for her research on primate learning and how it compares with that of humans, Laurie Santos hopes that her students become as awed as she is by learning science.

As a teacher and a mentor, the associate professor of psychology and director of the Yale’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory has helped her undergraduates achieve accomplishments in science often only experienced by graduate students: designing their own experiments in her laboratory, publishing papers in professional journals, and exploring with Santos whole new questions in the field.

Santos spoke with YaleNews about her teaching after learning that she is this year’s recipient of the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences (see “Six faculty members are honored with Yale College Teaching Prizes”). What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What do you most enjoy about teaching at Yale?

My favorite thing about teaching at Yale is the students, and seeing how they react to the new material I teach. The best thing about doing a big lecture course is that you get to tell the students a new story, one that you think is important, and you get to share with them for the first time. And when you watch them get it and start thinking about it and become curious about the story that you’re telling them — that’s just amazing. It’s really fun.

I think that one cool thing about teaching is that I’m able to extend it beyond the lecture and beyond the classroom and into the laboratory. Many of the undergrads I teach in my big lecture course as freshmen end up as research assistants in my lab. Some of them have even gone on to publish their own academic papers in great academic journals. I think that the role of a teacher fluidly passing into the role of mentor and maybe even the role colleague is one of the kind of things I love about being at a place like Yale, where we get these fabulous undergraduate students who aren’t going to just sit there and listen to a lecture. They are going to come up with their own questions, and we can together design studies to answer them.

What have you learned from your students?

I’ve learned so many things from my students. Just an offhanded question that a student will come up with at the end of a lecture can sometimes launch a whole new research program. Just sitting there thinking about these big problems with students and watching the kinds of things they pick up on, based on what I’m telling them — it’s amazing and it can launch whole new ideas and whole new kinds of research.

Did you have a teacher who particularly inspired you?

I’ve been lucky to have lots of inspiring teachers. My favorite was back in high school, my Advanced Placement biology teacher, Bonnie Ferreira, who I’m still in touch with today. She’s the one who gave me a real love for biology, and it’s the same love I now try to transmit to my students.

I think she was inspiring in part because she just had a passion for the work. It was a combination of passion and a real curiosity about what was going on, and I think that just kind of stuck with me, even now — many, many years after high school.

If there is one thing you want your students to learn from you, what would that be?

I think the one thing I most want students to take away from my course is just a fascination with how beautiful and how fun science is. I find it fun, and I try to convey that to my students. I hope they end up taking that away with them.

Is there a memorable classroom experience you’d like to share?

I think my most memorable classroom experience at least today was the last class that I taught for my last lecture in the spring of 2012. At the end, sometimes when you end the lecture the students will clap and kind of cheer for you, and this time it just felt really special. The students were really into it and just hearing their applause and seeing them really excited about the material just meant a lot. I almost got teary-eyed on the stage. It was a bit embarrassing, but still really cool.

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