Tibbitts winner Trish Ellison, connects with students in a heartfelt way

Trish Ellison, Tibbitts winner 2017, University of Nevada, RenoPatricia Ellison, an associate professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, was caught off-guard by the news. Provost Kevin Carman, colleagues, as well as members of the selection committee, interrupted Ellison’s biochem class to present the Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award.

The F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award has been conferred to the campus' finest teachers for more than four decades.

Ellison, in the midst of a lecture on enzyme kinetics, was at a loss for words, something her longtime colleague and mentor Gary Blomquist noted.

"I think," Blomquist said with a wide grin to Ellison, "that this is the first time I've seen you at a loss for words." "This is a new situation for me ... without something specific to say," Ellison admitted. She turned to her students, and added, "The people I really want to thank are you guys. It's teaching you year after year and learning from you ... that's what makes it all so fun for me."

A few days after the presentations, Ellison had a chance to sit down between classes to reflect on the award and what it meant.

Ellison, who joined the faculty in 2000 as a researcher working on smooth muscle biochemistry, the Tibbitts Award was a reminder of her evolution as a professor. The native of England hadn't necessarily always thought of herself as a "teacher" - and hadn't taught at all - when she came to the University.  Almost by happenstance, when a faculty member went on sabbatical in 2004 and her teaching load increased, did she feel that something "clicked." Shortly thereafter, she accepted an offer from her department to become a full-time teacher.

"I was surprised the first year I taught," Ellison said. She added, with a quick laugh, "It surprised me how patient I was. I was actually quite astonished. I could find reserves of patience and I caught on fairly quickly."

Ellison, who is known as a pretty forthright person, one who is known to crack the occasional "odd joke," even about biochemistry, said she learned to bring more alertness and enthusiasm to her teaching thanks to encouragement from colleagues such as Blomquist.

"When I first started teaching, the first two or three years, I was probably in his office (Blomquist was then the chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) at least once a month," she said. "He listened to all my whining. From him, I got the idea of bringing energy to it. He was always so upbeat and energetic, and that certainly helped me, to learn from someone who really set a collegial, positive, energetic tone."

Ellison said, "Over the last 12 or 13 years, I've really learned to listen. You really have to watch your students, and listen to them closely and carefully, to see if they are comprehending the material. You need to give them time and space to share what they've learned with you."

Ellison, who was herself a first-generation college student, though she enjoys all of her students, said she has particular empathy for students who come from a similar background.

"When I was growing up, college always felt a bit mysterious to me, like Mars," she said. "I have a lot of respect for the students that I recognize in my class who are maybe in a similar position. When I was in college, I often didn't feel comfortable approaching a professor. I recognize that common thread with the students in my classes who are first-generation college students.

"I know with my accent I sound like the principal of Hogwarts, but I can recognize the worry that some of my first-generation students have."

Passionate – a teacher who make every class count. When given a choice of how to describe what she does, Ellison answered, "whenever anyone asks me what I do, I tell them I teach ... I teach biochem at UNR," Ellison said.