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Famula among Princeton Review's 300 'best professors'

4.3.2012

By Dateline staff

Photo: Professor Thomas Famula confers with a student during office hours, in this 2008 photo.

Professor Tom Famula confers with a student during office hours, in this 2008 photo.

The Princeton Review is known for its annual “best colleges” publication. Now comes The Best 300 Professors, including one from UC Davis: Thomas Famula, who teaches the introductory course in animal science, ANS 1.

The guidebook, a collaboration between the Princeton Review (which is not affiliated with Princeton University) and RateMyProfessors.com, came out today (April 3).

“Tom has perfected the art of teaching,” said Professor Anita Oberbauer, chair of the Department of Animal Science. “Not only does he engage the students in the learning process, he instills in them the love of lifelong learning. We are privileged to have such a role model for our faculty.”

Famula, who also teaches upper-division animal genetics, received a Distinguished Teaching Award from the Academic Senate in 1999, and he continues to get high marks on student reviews collected by the university.

Students also rave about him on RateMyProfessors.com, described by the Princeton Review as “the highest-trafficked college professor ratings site in the U.S.”

In profiling Famula, the Princeton Review’s new guidebook offers this summary: Students say this “hilarious” professor conducts a class that is “very entertaining and at the same time educational,” and which “keeps his audience riveted.”

Of UC Davis overall, the Princeton Review states: “The school has a fast-paced quarter system that doesn’t leave much room for slacking. However, you’ll be glad to know that you’ll have professors that support you along the way. … ‘Helpful’ professors seem to be the norm.”

The guidebook quotes an appreciative student: “I feel like there isn’t anyone here, whether students or professors, that (isn’t) willing to lend a hand to students.”

A teacher and a researcher

Famula is the only animal science professor among the Princeton Review’s 300. He is one of 10 UC professors on the list; the others are at Berkeley, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.

The Princeton Review started the selection process with 42,000 names (professors who had garnered comments on RateMyProfessors.com), then gathered input from school administrators and students, and interviewed the finalists.

Famula earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science from the University of Delaware in 1977, and master’s and doctoral degrees in animal breeding from Cornell University in 1979 and 1981.

He is an authority on the mathematical elements of genetics, particularly as they apply to animal growth and lactation. He joined the Department of Animal Science in 1981, coming here to teach classes in dairy and beef cattle breeding. He achieved full professor status in 1992.

Today, his research focuses on the statistical aspects of genetics and animal improvement, with a special interest in the inheritance of disease in dogs.

This has led him to study epilepsy in Belgian Tervuren dogs, deafness in dalmatians and Addison’s disease in bearded collies. The goal of the work is to discover the specific genes that influence the expression of heritable diseases.

Over the years, his genetics studies have included a number of other species, including mice, cattle, sheep, scallops, soapberry bugs, elk, parrots, macaques, dogs and cats.

“Tom Famula truly exemplifies what is great about UC Davis faculty,” said Neal Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “He is committed to the top-notch education of students and is a world-class researcher in the field of animal science.”

Milking cows, setting sheep

Famula has been teaching ANS 1 every fall quarter for 20 years. Titled “Domestic Animals and People,” the curriculum includes animal domestication, and factors affecting their characteristics and distribution; and the use of animals for food and fiber, and in research and recreation.

Three hours of lecture each week are accompanied by three hours of lab, for such assignments as milking cows and cleaning horse hooves. “Where else do you milk a cow for a final?” asked one student reviewer, referring to the ANS 1 lab final.

The lab work also includes setting sheep,” or flipping the animal from all fours to its rump, nestled between your knees — freeing your hands to shear the animal or check its teeth.

“Four-hundred freshmen get to flip those sheep (every quarter),” he said by e-mail. “It’s the quintessential Aggie class (except for maybe tractor driving).”

The Princeton Review describes ANS 1 as “one of the school’s most hand-dirtying classes.” Yet, Famula said, the students are “so enthusiastic,” and he loves teaching them.

In a large class such as ANS 1, Famula said, he is well aware of what is needed to keep everyone’s attention: an “element of being able to control them and keep them on task and keep their minds engaged.”

He said he stresses writing skills (“Clear thinking is not possible
in the absence of clear writing”) and admits to being old-fashioned (“I use chalk”).

And, even when he goes modern, by podcasting his courses, he sometimes will turn off the equipment — and the students who come to class will get information that the podcast audience will not.

But, the Princeton Review asks: “Why would you want to skip class?” He is funny, keeps his students focused on the material, and teaches you how to milk cows and set sheep.

And, as one student reviewer declared: “Just BIG FAN OF FAMULA!!!!!!”


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