Biology professor holds meetings on the run

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Sept. 29, 2016

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Emory College biology lecturer Patrick Cafferty (left, blue shorts and shirt) takes one of his weekly office hours on the road for a three-mile run through campus. It’s part of an overarching goal to truly connect with students in his human physiology class as a teacher and mentor. Emory Photo/Video

There’s a very good chance Patrick Cafferty runs a different meeting than you do.

The Emory College biology lecturer takes one of his weekly office hours on the road, heading out for a three-mile run through campus with students. It’s part of an overarching goal to truly connect with students in his human physiology class as a teacher and mentor.

“I invite every student to just come in and chat,” says Cafferty, decked out in running shorts and a tank top before one of the weekly runs. “Some are too shy to do it, but they can join a run and just listen, and we get to know each other on a personal level. There is an equalizing aspect of sport.”

Early in the semester, Cafferty is the one doing most of the talking. Part of that is his 10-minute mile pace — slow for a serious triathlete like him but a challenge for some students.

But it also lets Cafferty discuss class topics, such as the neurobiology behind cramped muscles or the dilatation of blood vessels serving muscles during exercise, as they are happening to some of the runners.

“This is great for me, because it’s an outlet to exercise, study and develop a relationship with faculty and students all at once,” says Amancio Romero, a junior behavioral biology and neuroscience major who last ran regularly, as a sprinter, in high school.

Call it active learning, something Cafferty has experienced personally. He grew up in Canada, interested first in exploring wildlife and later, studying life from the molecular level.

At the same time he grew to understand complex cellular behavior from a biology perspective, he was applying those lessons to his training in Iron Man competitions and cycling.

But it was not until graduate school at McGill University in Montreal, when he joined a swim club that welcomed students, staff and faculty, that he realized the value of linking those two worlds.

At McGill, Cafferty ended up in the pool with some professors he never would have otherwise met. He also connected with a professor who ended up being a doctoral mentor.

“There is a reason we have business meetings at lunch or over golf. It’s about being comfortable and being able to have natural conversations,” Cafferty says.

Benefits of 'active office hours'

Those realizations prompted Cafferty to launch a run club when he came to Emory as a faculty-in-residence in 2011. Students, faculty and community members participated in that club, which became the model for what he calls his Active Office Hours.

Students who have participated so far include an Emory swimmer who gave up the sport to make time for studying, students who last ran during high school track or cross country, and even one person who had never run before.

One of the students has joined while listening to Cafferty’s lectures on an MP3 device, asking questions as they arise in his headphones.

Another, senior Maiya Smith, came with a screenshot of questions to ask Cafferty during the run through Lullwater Preserve.

“I never heard of a professor doing this before, and I love it,” says Smith, an anthropology and human biology major who ran marathons in high school. “I can see our runs directly connecting to class, and that just makes me want to ask even more questions.”

Like typical desk-bound office hours, the active versions are also a valuable resource for students beyond the classroom.

Cafferty welcomes students outside his class to the runs. He also plans on interval training runs, which will help some runners improve their times while letting everyone regroup to chat.

Conversations vary from campus gossip to current TV shows to classroom lessons, he says. Inevitably, questions come up about fitness or diet trends, issues directly linked to classroom work on nutrition and exercise.

“Running is completely new to me,” says Luke Roberts, a junior biology major who spent a year on Emory’s swim team. “I don’t have any breath left to ask questions, but it’s interesting just to listen and put it all together.”

The benefits spill over to students who don’t want to run, too. More of those students appear to have noticed Cafferty’s passion for biology in general and physiology in particular, and they are showing up more often in his Rollins Research Center office to talk.

“I hope to share something I’m kind of good at and enjoy with them, because I want them to know me,” Cafferty says. “And I think students see if you have a genuine interest in getting to know them.”