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2024 Excellence in Teaching: Robert "Lou" Hirsch​

Lou Hirsch was born and raised in Phoenix, AZ, and earned his B.A. degree in English and religious studies from Tulane University in New Orleans, LA, in 2007. After college, he worked in the maritime industry as a scuba instructor and boat captain until he followed his future spouse to Fayetteville, AR, for her graduate degree. While at the University of Arkansas, he reenrolled as a nontraditional biology major and took an hourly position washing dishes in a plant pathology lab. After mastering the nuances of cleaning dishware, he eventually joined his host lab and earned his M.S. degree in plant pathology in 2010 and Ph.D. degree in plant science in 2014. After graduation, he split his time as an adjunct lecturer at Coker College in Hartsville, SC, and a research associate at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. Most recently, Lou joined the faculty at the University of Kentucky (UK), first as a lecturer and then as an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology. Lou also serves as the director of undergraduate studies for two majors: agricultural and medical biotechnology (ABT), and agriculture individualized curriculum. 

Lou cultivates vibrant, engaging learning environments that leverage multimodal pedagogical methods to develop critical thinking, public speaking, and scholarly writing skills in diverse communities of learners. He is widely regarded as a pedagogical expert by his students, peers, and administration, having earned every major teaching award at the University of Kentucky, in addition to receiving a Martin-Gatton Distinguished Early Career Professorship in April 2024. Furthermore, he has participated in four different teaching fellowships at UK and is increasingly sought after for his perspective on teaching practices and curricular design. In addition to his collegiate teaching, Lou also actively engages with society-wide educational initiatives, ranging from a robust national program of K-12 STEM outreach to leading science outreach programs for adults throughout Kentucky. 

Lou is a dynamic educator, who reaches far beyond his plant pathology students to educate the next generation of leaders in numerous academic disciplines. At UK, Lou has instructed 14 different classes in 6 different academic programs, with students ranging from freshmen to Ph.D. candidates. He excels in numerous teaching modalities and carries a portfolio of lecture, discussion, laboratory, research, internship, and study abroad courses. As examples, Lou instructs UK's only undergraduate plant pathology course (PPA 400G Principles of Plant Pathology). He also redeveloped a freshmen-level laboratory and scientific writing class for new students in the ABT program, which is highly regarded by his students and colleagues as a valuable opportunity to cultivate meaningful professional skills. He also developed a popular course on agricultural and medical genetic engineering that was adapted into a special topics class for the UK Lewis Honors College. Lou also codeveloped a course-embedded undergraduate research experience to develop a first report of tomato diseases in Kentucky. Furthermore, Lou leveraged his scuba training to lead a study abroad group of undergraduates to Cozumel, Mexico, to conduct 19 dives and earn 6 specialty certifications over 1 week while conducting fish surveys and coral reef conservation. Lou is equally comfortable educating students about fungal phytopathology or jumping off a dive boat as he is facilitating discussions about the moral ambiguities of human genetic modification and exploring the social implications of biotechnological interventions in medicine, which speaks to his intellectual flexibility as much as his outgoing and engaging personality. 

Lou has institutionalized his passion for student success through his academic program leadership. The ABT major is an approximately 200-student interdisciplinary program at UK that trains future scientific and medical professionals with small-enrollment, genetics-focused classes combined with a required undergraduate research project. During his time in program leadership, he devised, proposed, and implemented a new curriculum that met the needs of modern students. Just as he builds communities based on support and trust in his classrooms, he has created or redeveloped the program's introductory classes to focus on cultivating durable student cohorts and forging close relationships with faculty. He also has created a new independent research onboarding class to help demystify the process of scientific inquiry and further prepare his students for success. He has embraced his humanities background by liberalizing the major's approach to required electives, encouraging students to pursue classes outside of the sciences that support and enrich their educational goals. As a leader in the agricultural individualized major, Lou helps develop personalized plans of study for traditional students who have encountered academic difficulties in addition to working with adult learners who seek to complete their degrees remotely. Lou takes a hands-on approach with mentorship, and his door is always open to students who need help. During his time at UK, he has served as the formal academic advisor or career and professional mentor for more than 100 undergraduate students in numerous programs and continues to informally meet with students daily to empower them to find success in their lives. 

In addition to his on-campus efforts, Lou maintains an active program of science outreach to K-12 STEM students and the broader community. Lou has worked on his own or in concert with the APS OPRO and OE groups to participate in more than 100 science outreach activities with local, regional, national, and international classrooms through in-person activities or online platforms. Lou is an active contributor to, mentoring groups of middle and high schoolers every semester with science experiments in addition to developing an online laboratory module on bacterial pathogenesis. Lou is also on the leadership committees for two annual, city-wide science festivals that connect collegiate expertise with members of his community. 

Overall, Lou exemplifies the values and practices that society needs in our educators. He is uncompromisingly focused on doing what is best for his students, which manifests in dynamic and cross-cutting approaches to educational practices, in addition to the development of durable academic programming. Lou's energy and passion for education is infectious, and he is most deserving of the APS Excellence in Teaching Award for his unwavering commitment to science education and the field of plant pathology.