Texas Tech University

Innovations In and Out of the Classroom Drive Chemistry Professor

Glenys Young

April 7, 2021

Dimitri Pappas

Dimitri Pappas received a 2021 Chancellor’s Council Distinguished Teaching Award.

In February, the Texas Tech University System announced its 2021 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching and Research Awards to honor outstanding faculty members who provide exceptional opportunities for students both in and out of the classroom. We are highlighting the seven Texas Tech University faculty members who were recognized.

For decades, the success or failure of students in college courses has hinged on two major events: the midterm and the final exam. And if either went poorly, the student was almost assured of failing the entire class.

Dimitri Pappas is not a fan of that model. As he says, “In real life, we are continuously tested. Why shouldn't college be the same?”

That's why Pappas, a professor in the College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, has opted for more frequent examinations over smaller chunks of material. With more tests, each represents a smaller percentage of the student's overall grade.

Innovation is nothing new to Pappas, who was honored with the 2011 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Research Award for his work detecting cancer and heart disease. But it's his classroom innovations that earned him the 2021 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching Award.

The Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching and Research Awards are given to individuals who exemplify teaching or research excellence, have significantly advanced teaching or research efforts and are noted as leaders among colleagues and in their respective fields. Established in 2001, they are the highest honors given to Texas Tech University System faculty members.

Can you describe your research and its impact, both in academics and society?

My research is two-fold. I have an active laboratory research program focused on detection of sepsis and cancer. Currently we are funded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) and the National Science Foundation, but we also have had generous support from other agencies and foundations. I also have a research program in teaching, where we have investigated changing the testing dynamic.

Our lab research aims to save lives by detecting sepsis earlier and more accurately. In clinical studies, we have shown 98% accuracy in detecting sepsis using a simple and rapid test. We are currently working to expand these studies. Our cancer research aims at new biological markers to detecting cancers from blood samples and other bodily fluids.

These “liquid” biopsies are easier to obtain and can be used to detect metastasis – invasive cancers.

Our education research aims to change how we test students. I have moved to multiple “mini” exams throughout the semester. The result is that students study more often – something they complain about – but over smaller amounts of material. The question complexity is the same; I just ask them fewer questions, but more often. In addition to assessing their progress more often, the stakes are lower for each mini-exam, so a student can be impacted by a life event and have a lower performance on one mini-exam, without it having a course-ending impact. I've seen too many students do poorly in class because they have one or two exams and a final. In real life, we are continuously tested. Why shouldn't college be the same?

What projects are you working on at this time?

In our sepsis and cancer work, we are designing new, 3D-printed test devices. It's been a challenge, but it's going to make a big difference in how we scale up this work. We just got a patent last semester on this technology, and we're excited to move it forward. We also are developing new nanomaterials – substances much smaller than a human cell – for detecting cancers. It's a new development in our group, and I'm very excited about the possibilities.

What areas are you interested in for future research?

For lab research, we are going to continue applying our unique methods to sepsis and cancer research. These problems aren't going away anytime soon, but with our help, the mortality of both may decrease. That's a major motivator for my research students. Our work is hard and requires long hours, but my students are rock stars and continuously amaze me with their work ethic. They know lives are on the line, and that keeps them going.

For teaching research, we are writing up our first manuscript on alternate testing/assessment modalities. The data is compelling, and I hope that it reaches audiences across teaching disciplines. I am continuously tinkering with how I teach, even in the course I've taught since 2008. Every semester I am modifying things and seeing what does and does not work.

What rewards do you get from teaching?

More than anything, I view my role as a teacher as a mentor. I have a lot of material to impart in a semester, but at the same time I'm always trying to see who is struggling, who needs help and who needs someone to help them apply themselves better. Every semester I get to work with talented students who are here to enrich themselves through knowledge. How can I top that?

What motivated you to pursue a career in academia?

I had originally intended to pursue an academic career. My research adviser at the University of Florida, Jim Winefordner, was an absolute giant in our research field. He was one of the most distinguished faculty at the University of Florida – in fact his position enabled him a full teaching release due to his research acumen. Yet Jim taught every semester, and taught well, because he felt it was his academic duty. Learning under

his tutelage was a life-changing experience. Despite all of his success, he was the most gracious and humble person you'd meet. I definitely wanted to emulate Jim's success and pursue a career in academia.

I took a detour and worked at Johnson Space Center for few years, but I realized that the government lab life was not for me. I really craved the creative freedom of academia and, more importantly, the chance to mentor and help young scientists on their journey. Both in my research and teaching efforts, I get to do that.

How has Texas Tech helped you advance your research and teaching?

Texas Tech and the Texas Tech University System have been supportive of my scholarly work in every way. From our local leadership all the way up to the Chancellor's office, I feel that there has been a concerted effort to ensure faculty succeed. In a most tangible way, the excellent support staff at the university help make our innovations possible.

Who has had the biggest impact on you and your career, and why?

The talented women and men who have worked in my labs have had the biggest impact on my career. Without them, I wouldn't be where I am today. They take my ideas – both in research and teaching – and help me make them a reality. My students are not only instrumental in my research but also are excellent sounding boards for my innovations in teaching.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I have been fortunate to receive both the Chancellor's Council Distinguished Research and Teaching Awards. It's a humbling honor, but the duality of the awards, and their equal status in the Texas Tech University System, shows the System's commitment to excellence in all aspects of academic pursuits.