Sept. 17, 2020
John Bigbee jokingly refers to himself as a “histology nerd” who hopes his ongoing passion for studying the microscopic structure of cells, tissues and organs will rub off on his students.
“When I teach, I start from a place of, ‘What I’m telling you is not something I was told to tell you about. It’s something I want to tell you about.’ It’s a privilege to tell you about histology just like it’s a privilege to study it,” said Bigbee, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.
Bigbee, who has spent 34 years at VCU, is one of four recipients this year of the Alpha Omega Alpha Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teacher Award, a national recognition given to faculty members who have distinguished themselves in medical student education. He will be honored during the Association of American Medical Colleges’ virtual conference later this year.
Megan Sayyad, Ph.D., one of Bigbee’s former students, isn’t surprised at the recognition. She compares his style of teaching to storytelling.
“When you go to his lecture, he tells you a story. He tells it in such a fun way. It’s very engaging. That helps you absorb the material effectively and makes it easier to learn,” said Sayyad, who earned her doctoral degree in neuroscience from VCU last year. “He puts so much time and effort into each lecture.”
Bigbee’s open-door policy and willingness to go above and beyond for every student is refreshing, she said.
“He’s so patient with you,” Sayyad said. “He walks you through everything. It’s enlightening to speak with him. He has a way of looking at problems and questions in a logical manner and from so many different angles.”
The advice he gives is insightful, profound and full of wisdom, she said.
“Dr. Bigbee goes out of his way to make sure students get the holistic experience they want. He tailors graduate training to each student so that they can gain the skill set they want and need for their different career paths,” she said.
Inspired by his teachers
Growing up, Bigbee never had a specific career in mind, but he knew he liked science. He credits his high school biology teacher with sparking his enthusiasm for biology by making it interesting. “I fed on it,” said Bigbee, who has always had an appreciation for nature.
He didn’t cultivate a passion for histology until he went to Humboldt State University, where he completed undergraduate and master’s degrees in biology. “I couldn’t get enough of it. I was glued to the microscope in the lab,” he said.
Bigbee earned his Ph.D. in neurobiology from Stanford University before moving to Richmond to complete a postdoctoral fellowship in VCU’s Department of Biochemistry and to teach part time. He joined the university faculty in 1986.
“It has been a blessing over the years to work with some very inspirational and talented colleagues in the department,” he said. “I feel so fortunate to be in an environment that fosters growth and exploration, and I’m enjoying each step that I take.”
Over the years, Bigbee has taught histology and neuroscience to medical, dental and graduate students. “I love teaching so much. I get so much out of it,” he said. “I am super fortunate to have John T. Povlishock, Ph.D., as my department chair. He understands the importance of teaching and supports his faculty.”
Even though Bigbee has many academic interests, teaching is what he enjoys the most.
“In some ways, that is what I could do best,” he said. “It came the easiest. We all gravitate to things we do reasonably well, things that aren’t a struggle. It was such a wonderful opportunity.”
In his classes, he tries to get students to understand that learning is its own reward.
“To be able to give students that sense of wonderment and awe at what they are looking at is magic,” he said. “I want this to be the stimulus for them to want to learn their whole life.”
Whenever there’s a decision to be made, he will think about it from the student’s standpoint. If there isn’t a reason not to do something a student asks, he will go out of his way to do it. He has their interest at heart. He gives 110% to everything.
In the 1990s, Bigbee began working on a project with colleague Alice Pakurar, Ph.D., to create the teaching resource called Digital Histology in order to adapt to changes in medical and dental curricula.
“I began amassing Kodachrome, then digital images of microscope slides for use in undergraduate classes at MCV,” said Pakurar, a retired associate professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. “When histology labs were canceled for medical students, John [Bigbee] came on board, and we expanded the number of images and added more text, structures to identify and quizzes.”
Digital Histology was published as an outline text plus CD atlas for many years. During that time, it was used as a laboratory course for medical, dental and graduate classes, as well as undergraduate histology classes.
“John and I then got back the copyright ownership of the publication and recently put it online so that it is now available for free at digitalhistology.org for anyone to use,” Pakurar said.
The newly designed platform includes expanded content, higher quality images, self-assessment quizzes and a digital textbook.
Working with Bigbee was “great fun,” Pakurar said. “He is very caring and very perceptive of other people and their feelings and attitudes. He’s a broad thinker and an active doer.”
Pakurar spent 15 years teaching with Bigbee and saw firsthand how he cared about students.
“He speaks to them at their level, very accurately and personably,” she said. “He’s good at getting information across to them. He’s very genuine.”
Bigbee is one of only three Glaser award winners in VCU’s history, joining Linda Costanzo, Ph.D., in 2004 and Hugo Seibel, Ph.D., in 1998.
“Dr. Bigbee has made an impact on countless students at VCU,” said Peter Buckley, M.D., dean of VCU’s School of Medicine, who also serves as chair of the Association of American Medical Colleges Council of Deans Administrative Board and as a member of the Board of Directors. “We are lucky to have educators like Dr. Bigbee who have such a passion for encouraging students’ pursuit of lifelong learning. This honor from the AAMC for a lifetime of dedication to teaching is well-deserved.”
In addition to the Glaser award, Bigbee has won 27 outstanding teaching awards from the School of Medicine in multiple courses.
“I’m extremely humbled by the awards,” Bigbee said. “I’m very flattered. Being recognized by peers is the best there is.”
Susan DiGiovanni, M.D., associate dean for quality improvement and Liaison Committee on Medical Education standards in the School of Medicine, has worked with Bigbee since 2008. She describes him as a “ball of energy.”
“He’s extremely enthusiastic. He’s one of the most student-centered faculty members I have ever met,” said DiGiovanni, a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine. “Whenever there’s a decision to be made, he will think about it from the student’s standpoint. If there isn’t a reason not to do something a student asks, he will go out of his way to do it. He has their interests at heart. He gives 110% to everything.”
Thinking about the future
Bigbee often thinks about what he will do after he retires from VCU.
“I think I would want to stay in some kind of education. It could be contacting students and showing them how important STEM education is and telling them to find your joy in something that you enjoy,” he said.
He would also have more time to play music, something he loves to do when he’s not in class.
“I wouldn’t mind being in a bluegrass band,” said Bigbee, who plays the banjo and guitar. “But I don’t think I’m good enough to do that."
At the moment, he feels fulfilled in his work and life.
“If I had had the vision 35 years ago that where I am right now was available, I would have made a beeline to be where I am,” he said. “I’m very much at peace with what I’m doing. I’m very satisfied.”
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