Published August 10, 2022
David Hoekstra, clinical assistant professor of biological sciences, has received the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools’ (NAGS) Graduate Faculty Teaching Award. This honor highlights the time and effort he has dedicated to students at the masters’ level.
“I feel really passionate about trying to give students a sense of amazement of the natural world,” he says when asked about why he chose teaching as an occupation.
During his undergraduate years at SUNY Geneseo, Hoekstra initially aspired to teach middle and high school students. At first, he was torn between teaching history or biology, but a class pertaining to the geological history of life inspired him to pursue his passion for biology education.
As a junior and senior, Hoekstra participated in research that investigated the mechanisms of invasive weed species growth and possible solutions for combating the problem. This deepened his interest in biology and research.
Taking introductory courses focusing on cancer and immunology ignited another passion: a fascination with intricate cellular mechanisms. He decided to pursue teaching and research at the graduate level, and went on to earn his PhD in microbiology and immunology from UB and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Currently, he teaches classes in cancer immunology and experimental design, as well as a biology class for non-science majors. The experimental design class helps first-semester graduate students adjust to the rigor of graduate school by reading papers, discussing techniques and presenting on their research projects. The cancer immunology class provides students with foundational knowledge and exposure to an array of clinical concepts, problems and research.
Colleagues say Hoekstra’s commitment to his students has been especially notable during the pandemic, as he has mentored dozens of students through a challenging time filled with personal hardships.
Hoekstra understands it is not easy asking for help, but he has worked to create an open environment where students feel comfortable reaching out.
“One thing I feel really passionate about recently is to encourage students to seek help early if they’re struggling,” he says. “I’ve been disclosing my diagnosis with stuttering, and have seen many students open up and seek help for a variety of issues, which improves their well-being and success.”
In addition to teaching, Hoekstra serves as director of the MA in biological sciences program. Upon arriving at UB, he revised the program to make it more inclusive and collaborative, and improve the overall quality.
He developed new courses and reworked mentoring approaches, leading to the program tripling in size. To build a sense of community within the program, Hoekstra redesigned the weekly seminar. The class now focuses on developing oral presentation skills, and each week a student delivers a presentation to their peers regarding their graduate research project.
He also discusses setting SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) goals, and encourages students to ask questions and form tight study and friend groups that continue after graduation.
Hoekstra’s dedication to teaching at the master’s level stems in part from gaps he noticed in support for graduate students in programs across the country.
“There is a lot of focus on PhD student education and training,” he says. “We should be providing training, advising and mentoring for master’s students at the same level that we do for PhD students.”
Omer Gokcumen, associate professor and chair of the awards committee in the Department of Biological Sciences, has witnessed the work that Hoekstra has put into the master’s program.
“Dr. Hoekstra has almost single-handedly constructed a regionally renowned master’s program, providing a fertile ground for training well-rounded scientists and medical professionals,” Gokcumen says. “Particularly impressive has been Dave’s ability to promote a diverse group of trainees who otherwise may not have had the opportunity to take the next step toward a research or medical career.”
You go, Dave! This is a very well-deserved honor. In keeping with his dedication to the department and those around him, Dave also initiated and continues to organize the Biological Sciences' adopt-a-family outreach each holiday season. Thanks for all you do, Dave!