Biology Professor Rates Top Marks on Popular Website

By Michele McDonald

For hundreds of students each semester, Mason biology professor R. Edward “Ed” Otto deftly untangles the complexity of genetics, human anatomy, and physiology. His tough but caring approach to teaching has propelled him into the top 10 of the nation’s highest-rated professors on the popular

The assistant director for Mason’s undergraduate biology program, Otto teaches about 400 to 500 students a semester in BIOL 124 and 125 Human Anatomy and Physiology, along with BIOL 311 General Genetics. Coming in at number six on the list with rave reviews, Otto is modest about his popularity and says, “This is not unique to me—Mason is full of great teachers.”

Biology professor Ed Otto doing what he does best--teaching. Otto is one of the top rated professors on the popular website Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Biology professor Ed Otto doing what he does best–teaching. Otto is one of the top-rated professors on the popular website Photo by Evan Cantwell.

His students are a little more effusive.

“He’s very firm and very strict, but he’s very, very friendly,” says Eswar Iyer, a former student and teaching assistant (TA) for Otto. “When he teaches, he doesn’t intimidate the students.”

Otto gives students confidence in learning the complex material, Iyer adds.

“He goes over the slides in very detailed way,” says Lisa Centeno, a senior majoring in neuroscience. “He doesn’t just read off them.”

No mumbling through lessons in front of the class, notes junior Matin Chafoory, a biology major. “He explains the material like he enjoys it.”

And it’s also the tone of his voice—accented by his North Carolina upbringing—that students say clues them into what might be on a test. That slight upturn cues them to pay attention, says Randa Edelbi, a communication and premedicine major.

“He’s always in a good mood,” she adds. “He’s just so nice. I think he really cares about his students.”

Between 400 to 500 students a semester pass through Biology professor Ed Otto's Biology 124 and 125 classes. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Between 400 to 500 students a semester pass through Mason professor Ed Otto’s Biology 124 and 125 classes. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Plus, students know they can call on him. “He makes sure the students understand the material,” says biology major Khatera Salam. “He’s always available to answer questions.”

Otto peppers his lectures with personal experiences, so students learn a little more than just what’s on the test.

“I’m a dental school dropout,”Otto jokes. “Most of our students want to be doctors and dentists, and they don’t know about the large range of opportunities for biologists. I try to leverage my nonacademic experience in ways to help them learn and help them understand what kind of opportunities are out there for them.”

Otto has considerable experience—he worked in the biopharmaceutical industry for more than 20 years. He participated in the first human gene therapy trials while working at Genetic Therapy Inc., which he later headed after Novartis purchased it. After successful stints as chief operating officer of Intronn Inc. and director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Cellular, Tissue, and Gene Therapies, Otto joined Mason in 2008 as a term professor.

Student rave about Biology professor Ed Otto's lecturing style and often recommend his classes to friends. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Students rave about biology professor Ed Otto’s lecturing style and often recommend his classes to friends. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

“The most influential people in my life were teachers,” Otto says of why he made the jump to teaching. “I was completely clueless in high school math. I had one math teacher who took me from clueless to proficient in one year. The same thing happened in graduate school. My graduate school mentor didn’t just make me a better scientist. He taught me to write. He taught me to think. A single person can have a lot of impact. If I can help just a couple of people, that’s a good thing.”

Otto, who earned his PhD in genetics from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and did postdoctoral work at Duke University, is also a mentor for graduate TAs. “Working with Dr. Otto was just amazing,” says Iyer, a TA for Otto for two years. “He gave the TAs confidence to teach.” Talking with Otto helped Iyer, who earned his doctorate in molecular biology in May, choose to become a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science this summer.

Biology major Myurajan Rubaharan says Otto encourages undergraduate students to do research to help them decide what to do with their degrees. “In a field like biology, you need some idea of what the outside world looks like,” says Rubaharan, who’s working on his master’s in biology.

Students line up to take classes from him, Rubaharan says. “My cousin and friends have taken his classes,” he says. “Everyone wants a recommendation from him because he’s so personable.”

But his class is no easy grade. “He should expect a lot from the students because he puts in so much effort,” Rubaharan says.

Otto will spend a day writing an exam that needs to be completed by students in one hour and 15 minutes.

“Genetics is a course where I try to emphasize critical thinking,” Otto explains. “These are all handwritten, problem-based exams. And it’s challenging to do this with classes of 200 students because the teaching assistants and I end up having to grade 1,600 handwritten pages for every exam. But I don’t want to turn it into a multiple-choice class because then the critical-thinking aspect of the course gets lost.” claims to be the largest online destination for professor ratings. More than 8,000 schools are featured on the website, and site administrators state that more than 15 million comments and ratings by students have been recorded there. Each year, compiles lists of the highest-rated professors, hottest professors, and top schools in the United States based on these student ratings.

Using a five-point Likert scale, students rate professors on clarity, helpfulness, easiness, and “rater interest,” which usually reflects the rater’s interest in the course. “However, a professor’s Overall Quality rating (which informs the highest-rated professor list) is determined by an equal weighting of only two criteria: clarity and helpfulness. Five is the highest rating and one is the lowest rating for each of the above-mentioned dimensions,” according to the site.

Ultimately, it is the interactive play between student and professor that makes a standout teacher such as Otto, says his former TA. “Dr. Otto challenges the students,” Iyer says. “He brings the class to life.”

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on the university’s News site.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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