Now in the education business himself, Daniel Oerther can only hope he makes the same mark on his Missouri University of Science and Technology students as two Illini icons did on him.
“The first is Carl Woese and the second is Bruce Hannon,” says Oerther, who in 2002 earned his Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Illinois.
“Professor Woese taught a graduate level microbiology course in the evenings. I took his course four times; once for academic credit and three more times simply because I always enjoyed engaging with Professor Woese, one of the most brilliant scientists I have ever enjoyed meeting.
“My most cherished memory of the class is from a special guest lecture by Professor Harry Noller. Professor Noller was visiting Professor Woese, and offered to provide a guest lecture to our evening course.
“During Professor Noller's lecture, I raised my hand to ask a question. After I had finished, Professor Woese interjected, ‘No. That's the right question, but you're asking it the wrong way!’
“I had never heard Professor Woese become so agitated over a student question. I asked him about it after class, and he explained that he was very pleased with my question; he found it to be insightful. But ... I had missed the mark in the way I presented my question.
“I loved the input from Professor Woese; clearly, he had an intense interest to see me grow as a student and an emerging scientist, and he was so engaged that he took time to help me to grow. Its a treasured memory.
“The most treasured memory I have from my classes with Professor Bruce Hannon was a quote he regularly shared in our course on mathematical modeling, namely: ‘All models are wrong, but some models are useful.’ I share the same quote with my current students.
“Mathematical modeling is a way of reducing the complexity of the real world into mathematical expressions that can be ‘solved,’ by any number of methods. Professor Hannon taught me that it was ‘less important’ to be ‘right’ in my model, and more important to be ‘clear’ in my model.
“Useful models are clear. Useful models are thoughtful. Useful models provide new insights into complex real world phenomena.
“Professor Hannon taught me the importance of realizing that there is ‘no perfect model’ — or ‘no correct model’ — but rather there are a variety of approaches that can yield varying degrees of insight. Greater insight means more learning and that is the definition of a ‘useful model.’
“In my own teaching, I share each of these stories with my own students. I share the story of Professor Woese, and I share the story of Professor Hannon. I learned from these great teachers, and I hope that I am able to pass along some of this great wisdom to my own students; ever-expanding the Illinois legacy to more students throughout the world.”