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The Teacher Is In

In 30 years on the Berkeley faculty, food microbiologist George Chang has earned a reputation — in the classroom and the lab — for his abiding interest in students, especially undergraduates.

By Cathy Cockrell

George Chang

George Chang. Peg Skorpinski photo.

SPRING 2001 | Students of nutrition scientist George Chang can tell when the coast is clear and it's safe to approach their professor.

"If you see me wearing my hat, it's office hours," he's fond of saying — the joke being that he is rarely seen without his broad-brimmed white hat.

A faculty member since 1970, Chang has become known across campus not only for his signature headwear but for a deep interest in students and a warm way of putting them at ease— whether in an intimate seminar, a large lecture hall, the research lab, or an orientation for new students.

"He's always made himself available to both students and parents and gets very, very excited about meeting and welcoming both groups," said Roseanne Fong of New Student Services, who often taps the personable associate professor to speak at the Cal Summer Orientation program. In his remarks to new Berkeley undergrads, Chang exudes a genuine excitement about "what they might become and who they might become," said Fong.

Helping students reflect on 'the freshman experience'

For 10 of his 30 years on the faculty of the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology, Chang has brought this enthusiasm to "The Freshman Experience," a popular seminar on the ups and downs of new student life at Berkeley.

Students decide on discussion topics, interview their peers, and share experiences and "research" findings on a variety of freshman issues. Homesickness, dating, stress, homework, and tips on avoiding parking tickets are recurring themes. Stories about roommates abound.

"One of the best parts of each semester is when people talk about roommates," said Chang. The topic is "fresh and traumatic for students," which makes the classroom exchange "very lively."

During the final session of the fall 2000 semester, freshman Tommy Williams recapped what he had learned from these structured conversations with his peers. However bad you think a roommate is, he said, "there's always a worse story. It was really nice to sit down with 12 or 13 people going through the same thing as I was. I got out of it that you've got to be straightforward with your roommate. It helps to say 'don't use my brush, you have weird hair,' or 'don't touch my bed.'"

Chang presides with a light touch over "The Freshman Experience," offering occasional insights while steering clear of judgment. "He never tried to tell us what was bad," Williams said of the seminar. "Yet it was really nice to have the comfort of the teacher watching over us."

When students fret about workloads and studying, for example, Chang notes that worry is inherent in academics — but there's a difference between moderate and "overwhelming" worry. The father of four adult children, Chang remembers his own parental concerns about the "distractions kids get into" while at college.

He notes, however, that the problems Berkeley newcomers identify have changed over the decade he's taught his freshman course.

"There isn't so much anxiety about the art of studying as there used to be," he said. "I strongly suspect that Berkeley's academic learning centers (in residence halls and the Cesar Chavez Student Center) are paying off."

A native of Long Island, New York, Chang spent much of his childhood in southern New Mexico, where he rubbed shoulders with Native Americans, Mexicans, Sikhs, and Mormons, listened to country music and "learned to swear pretty fluently in Spanish."

After graduating from Princeton University with a bachelor's degree in Latin, he earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Berkeley in 1967. During the 1980s, he served on the campus's Maslach Commission, which made recommendations on improving undergraduates' time at Berkeley.

His strong commitment to undergraduates is born out of a sense of gratitude to these students. "All of us wish to be young and stay forever young," he told his freshman seminar students. "But the next best thing, which you give to the faculty, is a young outlook and excitement about life. Every faculty member owes you a thanks."

Finding teaching opportunities in the lab


Chang Lab

In 1990, George Chang gave undergraduate Rosalind Tung the chance to learn from experience in the lab. They now hold three patents together.
Peg Skorpinski photo.

Chang's "open door policy" toward students is equally evident in his Morgan Hall research lab. There, the next generation of scientists works closely with Chang on developing methods to monitor the microbial safety of food and water supplies.

He cites the scientific sophistication that graduate students bring to these investigations, as well as the "outright fresh enthusiasm" of undergraduate researchers.

The latter, in fact, figures prominently in Chang's account of "one of the most exciting things to happen in my lab." In the late 1980s, he said, "we discovered that the state-of-the-art method for detecting E-coli (an indicator of fecal contamination in lakes, streams, and domestic water supplies) had some very serious flaws in it."

One evening, Chang had a brainstorm about a possible new method to detect E-coli. "I ran into the lab, to tell anyone I could find. The only ones there were a postdoc and undergrad," he recalls. "The postdoc said 'George, do you have any evidence at all that this idea would work?' The undergrad said, 'Dr. Chang, why don't we test it tomorrow?' The next day she made a medium and inoculated it."

The new test, in fact, provided accurate results in a day's time, versus three or four days for the century-old coliform test. Chang and the undergraduate researcher became co-inventors on a patent for "Colitag," and on two patents since.

"You have the feeling you can ask him anything," co-inventor Rosalind Tung said of her mentor, whom she called "one of the best advisers on campus."

"He may not answer every question, if he feels it's a teaching opportunity," said Tung. "He encourages you to find your own answers, but also provides enough guidance so that you're not lost."

Chang said he could talk "a long time" about the ways that such research collaborations with students can have an impact on teaching, and vice versa. He cites, as example, the amount of instruction needed to bring a new student researcher "up to speed" in the laboratory environment.

The flip side, he notes with characteristic humility, is this: undergraduate researchers help to make him a better teacher — in part by providing intimate exposure to "different ways that human brains work."

"This makes it easier to design one's teaching so that a wider range of people understand what you're talking about," said Chang. "The students really teach me a lot."

Associate Professor of Food Microbiology George Chang may be reached at gwchang@uclink4.berkeley.edu or (510) 642-0603.


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