Amy Treonis

In the classroom and across the world, biology professor teaches hands-on learning

February 8, 2011

Amy Treonis’ philosophy for teaching biology is founded on the idea that students can’t learn science without doing science.

“That’s one of the reasons why I’m here at the University of Richmond,” she says. “There is support to do the things that I think are important in undergraduate education. Whether that’s an open-ended lab activity where they tell me what they want to do and I get the materials, or it’s the ability for students to travel to a field site with me, the University has been great about supporting me.”

Treonis’ applied learning approach extends to her own research interests, which surround the study of microscopic organisms that live in the soil, how they interact with plants, and what determines the organisms that are present in specific environments.

“I’ve worked in a lot of different habitats, ranging from my Ph.D. work in the Antarctic Dry Valleys, all the way to Scotland in grassland ecosystems where I did my post-doctoral work,” she says. “Recently I have been studying soil communities in extreme environments within the United States. I have an ongoing research program in Death Valley National Park, which is a part of the Mojave Desert.”

Part of Treonis’ teaching style is to bring her own research back to the classroom. She frequently involves her students in every step of the research and grant-writing process, from developing the investigation question, to requesting funding, to testing the hypothesis, to evaluating the data collected.

“I think that the undergraduate research experience is a core part of my teaching, but it’s also part of my research,” she says. “It’s a very seamless blend between the two activities.”

Treonis also believes in the value of hands-on learning abroad. She regretted not taking advantage of study abroad opportunities as an undergraduate student and has since made an effort to take advantage of any chance to gain a global point of view. Most recently, Treonis traveled to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia as part of the University’s Faculty Seminar Abroad program.

The trip was also a chance for Treonis to build relationships with fellow faculty members in other disciplines at the University and explore global issues from a holistic perspective.

“When I do research, I’m kind of in a box and it makes it seem like that’s all I’m going to do for the rest of my career,” she says. “But I’m also an intellectual person. I like to learn new things and sometimes I forget that because it’s easier to stick with what you know. To get outside of your comfort zone and be challenged to learn something new is really important — that’s what our students are doing every single day.”

Treonis’ enthusiasm for travel reaches her students as well. She encourages all of her advisees to take advantage of the University’s programs and helps them accommodate study abroad experiences in their academic schedule.

“Some students think that everything has to happen in this linear, ordered fashion and there’s no room for study abroad, and it’s just not true,” she says. “It’s important enough that they can make a diversion or alter things a little bit.”