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VCU professor receives national outstanding medical educator award Clarity, enthusiasm, connecting with students are trademarks of gifted instructor

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Accordions, rubber bands, Slinkies, and a mattress spring. These are the tools of the trade in Dr. Linda Costanzo’s first-year respiratory physiology course. Her trademark is making complex concepts understandable.

For three weeks each spring, rubber bands and lung function become synonymous for Costanzo’s students. She brings thousands of the bands to class – three different thicknesses – to illustrate points about emphysema, fibrosis and other respiratory diseases.

Together teacher and students stretch rubber bands as thin as spaghetti noodles on the fingers of their left hands, while on the right are bands as thick as telephone cords. At that moment, an unforgettable connection is made as the students visualize and feel how the lungs’ normal elasticity operates and how it can become crippled by devastating diseases.

Teaching techniques like these combined with an incredible commitment to see her students succeed have made Linda Costanzo, Ph.D., physiology professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine, a perennial favorite among her students and recently earned her the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society’s Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teaching Award for 2004.

Costanzo is one of only four medical school faculty members in the country to receive the award, which is given annually by the Association of American Medical Colleges in recognition of significant contributions to medical education by gifted teachers. The awards were presented during the 115th Annual Meeting of the AAMC in Boston on Nov. 6.

Always a passionate advocate for her students, Costanzo has been teaching since 1982. Whether it’s a crowded lecture hall with 180 students, or a one-on-one office discussion, Costanzo is able to connect with each individual. Her best selling physiology textbooks, written – as she says, to students, for students – have been overwhelmingly adopted all over the country by first- and second-year medical students and translated into seven languages. The books are frequently mentioned in letters she receives from grateful students.Linda Costanzo, Ph.D., attended the award ceremony in Boston with her husband, Richard Costanzo, Ph.D., a neurophysiologist at VCU. Photos courtesy of Linda Costanzo, Ph.D. [View Image] Linda Costanzo, Ph.D., attended the award ceremony in Boston with her husband, Richard Costanzo, Ph.D., a neurophysiologist at VCU. Photos courtesy of Linda Costanzo, Ph.D.

“I honored both semesters of physiology thanks to your books,” wrote a University of Illinois medical student. “They are the best resources I’ve found so far in medical school. Everyone in my class feels the same way.”

Perhaps Costanzo’s greatest teaching gift is her ability to relate to students in ways that are, at times, almost clairvoyant. Students marvel at her ability to anticipate their areas of difficulty and preemptively intervene with on-line tips and facts that illuminate the sometimes-murky field of physiology. To track student understanding of the material, she’s even experimented with incorporating real-time feedback using hand-held keypads.

"With mounting clinical and research pressures exerted on the time and thought given to teaching, faculty such as Linda Costanzo continue to grow in importance for the fortunate institutions that have them," says H. H. Newsome Jr., M.D., Dean of VCU’s School of Medicine. "Dr. Costanzo is a master of her craft and a real windfall for our students. The Glaser Award is a fitting tribute to her consummate skills. "

Her contributions to physiology education have been repeatedly honored. In addition to receiving VCU’s and the VCU School of Medicine’s highest awards for teaching, Costanzo was the inaugural recipient of the Arthur C. Guyton Physiology Teacher of the Year Award from the American Physiological Society in 1993.

Costanzo joined the physiology faculty at VCU in 1980. She has served as director of pre-clinical curriculum and currently is course director for M-I physiology and M-II board reviews. She earned a doctoral degree in pharmacology from The State University of New York in 1973 and completed her postdoctoral training in physiology at Cornell University Medical College in 1979.

Even after all these years, Costanzo confesses she worries that she won’t understand a topic well enough to teach it, or that she won’t connect with a student. But this most recent award again points to her success – which she said is due “In equal parts, to love of the subject matter and its endless possibilities and love and respect for students and their endless possibilities.“

The Association of American Medical Colleges is a nonprofit association representing all 125 accredited U.S. and 17 accredited Canadian medical schools; nearly 400 major teaching hospitals and health systems, including 68 Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers; and 94 academic and scientific societies. Through these institutions and organizations, the AAMC represents 109,000 faculty members, 67,000 medical students, and 104,000 resident physicians. Additional information about the AAMC and U.S. medical schools and teaching hospitals is available at www.aamc.org/newsroom.

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