Toxic Chemicals Class Helps Make Science Relevant for Students

<p>John Morris, professor of Toxicology, talks with Joseph Chichocki, a graduate Toxicology major, in the Pharmacy building. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli</p>
John Morris, professor of toxicology, speaks with Joseph Cichocki, a graduate student in toxicology, in the Pharmacy Building. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli

Translating complex laboratory research into fundamental principles students can grasp in the classroom is all part of a day’s work for John B. Morris, professor of pharmacy & toxicology and assistant dean for research in the School of Pharmacy.

A topnotch researcher, Morris is also able to convey complicated pharmaceutical science to students at various different academic levels.

“You have to be in the right frame of mind to switch from teaching an advanced course to teaching a basic one,” he says.

Wander into Morris’s lab and you quickly get a sense of the intricate research that occupies much of his working life. On one recent project, he looked into how adenosine sensory transduction pathways contribute to the activation of the sensory irritation response to inspired irritant vapors. Not exactly high school Bunsen burner and single test tube-type stuff.

Morris says he prefers telling people he meets at parties that he plays hockey for a living, rather than attempting to explain his research because it is so complex. It is this same light-hearted humor and his overall amicable nature that make Morris a favorite among students who take his classes.

“I like Prof. Morris’s class, it’s easygoing and interesting,” says Sarah Rahman, an eighth semester biology major. “I learn about things that are relevant to my major. I think he’s great and the way he explains things is simple and to the point. You can tell that he knows what he’s doing.”

Morris teaches an undergraduate course called Toxic Chemicals and Health at the School of Pharmacy, on a rotation with two other professors. The course, which satisfies a general education science requirement for non-science majors, introduces students to basic concepts in toxicology, such as how different chemicals and drugs can have harmful effects on the human body. Some of the main themes of Morris’s lectures include natural chemicals vs. synthetic chemicals, and the relationship between dosage size and toxicity.

In order to make the material covered in his lectures more meaningful, Morris introduces real life examples. The scenarios not only help make the science relevant to the students’ everyday lives, he says, they also put the consequences and risks of using certain chemicals into perspective.

“I think the way he teaches is good because he helps you understand things better,” says Andrew Feuerstein, a fourth semester biology major. “He breaks things down more than some other professors.”

During a typical lecture, students may listen to Morris explain that exercising on a smoggy day can lead to lung inflammation, due to the ozone in the air. They also might hear about how the drug Isotretinoin, also known as Accutane, a form of vitamin A used for clearing a person’s complexion, can cause birth defects if women take it while pregnant. By presenting his class with topics that concern their age group, Morris says he is able to stress some key points of toxicology, such as how even natural substances can be toxic with a sufficiently high dose.

Toxic Chemicals and Health is popular among students for several reasons. It’s straightforward, without all the scientific jargon, and a lot of what Morris teaches is common sense. Its bearing on real life situations allows students to see how the knowledge they learn in the classroom can be applied to their daily lives.

The class, which averages about 300 students, is especially popular with upperclassmen and athletes, many of whom are funneled into the course though the Counseling Program for Intercollegiate Athletes (CPIA). The class usually fills up by the second day of enrollment, and many students have to wait three or four years just to get in.

“As long as you come to class and pay attention, you will do fine in this course,” says Morris.

Morris received his bachelor of science degree from Allegheny College in 1973, his master’s degree in toxicology from the University of Rochester in 1977, his doctorate in1979, and had a post-doctoral fellowship at New York University.

He has also served as chair of the State of Connecticut Hazardous Air Pollutant Advisory Panel, and is currently treasurer-elect of the Society of Toxicology and co-editor of the publication Toxicology of the Nose and Upper Airways.

He has published many articles, and conducted presentations on his research regarding toxicology and air pollutants.

The Toxic Chemicals and Health course started as a result of a research proposal Morris made to the National Institutes of Health. One of the conditions of the NIH grant Morris received was that a general toxicology course be taught at the University of Connecticut. Although the grant ended more than a decade ago, Morris continues to teach the course as part of the School of Pharmacy’s current curriculum.