Standard of Excellence: An Interview with Dr. Andrew Holt | By Nikita-Kiran Singh

Education Visionaries in Edmonton Part I

Education Visionaries in Edmonton is a series of interviews conducted with educators whose passion for their work, dedication to their students, and desire for innovation are invaluable to the growth of Edmontonians and our city as a whole.  By conveying multiple perspectives from leaders in a diverse array of educational fields, The Wanderer hopes to illustrate the intrinsically valuable nature of learning, and celebrate the admirable art of teaching.

Originally from Scotland, Dr. Andrew Holt completed his undergraduate degree in Pharmacology at Dundee University.  He eventually pursued graduate studies at Cambridge University, where his own lab was a mere stone’s throw away from that of Watson and Crick.  Now an Associate Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Alberta, Dr. Holt has been a vocal advocate for students in the face of the education budget cuts by vocalizing his concerns to his students; personally contacting the Deputy Premier’s office; and wittily responding to what he deems “utter quackologies” via his Twitter account.  At the end of our interview, Dr. Holt insisted, “I still don’t think I’m a visionary, I’ll say that on tape!  I’m just a prof trying to put on a good lecture and a good course.”  Although Dr. Holt does not see himself as a visionary, his educational leadership has inspired students to take action and fight for our province’s future.

Nikita: What inspired you to become a pharmacologist, and what role did your educators play in that decision?

Dr. Holt: I’d had a job for a number of years, since I was about 12 years old, working in a local pharmacy.  I started off as a delivery boy, cycling all over the town that I lived in after school delivering prescriptions.  I started working behind the counter serving customers and then I graduated from that, and started dispensing prescriptions under the eye of the pharmacist who was there, who would sit and chat to me.  And so, when I got to the start of my second year in my undergraduate degree, my interest in Pharmacology developed.  I liked the stochastic processes that drugs seem to work by, the logic by which a drug interfered with a particular pathway to give you what seemed to be a predictable outcome.

Also, there were educators involved in the course.  One was a junior lecturer at that time; his name was John Peters.  He is probably to this day, the best lecturer I’ve had.  He’s now one of the most senior people in the British Pharmacological Society.  The other person that had a major impact was the Chair of the Department at that time, Professor Ian Stevenson.  He was an old Scottish guy – short and stocky, white hair, big white eyebrows, very aggressive looking, and had a very stern voice.  Everybody was terrified of him, including all the staff.  He had very, very high standards; expected nothing but the absolute best effort from everybody.  But, after you got to know him a little, you realized that he really, really cared about how the students did.  He had a major impact on how I do things.  I want to push the students as far as I can get away with, and show them that they are capable of stepping up when a lot’s asked of them.

Nikita: What do you feel are the most valuable qualities in an educator?

Dr. Holt: You see I’m not a trained educator; my wife is a teacher, so she’s a trained educator.  She gets quite irate when we refer to ourselves as teachers!  Other than the odd session put on by the university’s teaching and learning center, we get no formal training in how to teach, so you learn by trial and error.  With that caveat in mind, maybe my job is to educate, and therefore for that reason I’m an educator, though my wife might disagree!

I think you have to understand the material, and that sounds obvious, but if you’re a prof who’s told to teach such-and-such a subject to a class and it’s not in your area of expertise, you might learn it to textbook level or fractionally beyond, and then teach it at almost the level you understand it at, and you couldn’t go beyond that.  Usually, that’s not going to allow you to do a great job.  You need to present the material in such a way that your enthusiasm rubs off on at least some of the students.  So, hopefully it comes across in Pharmacology 201 that I enjoy my subject, and I’m enthusiastic about it.  I try and come at things from different angles and present things in different ways so that as many of the students as possible have a good chance at grasping whatever it is I’m trying to get across.  I think that you have to demand the best effort that the students can give you, and I think you’ve got to make that clear.  At the end of the day that’s in their best interest.

Nikita: The question of the value of education has been raised recently.  What do you think is the intrinsic benefit of education?

Dr. Holt: Education produces people who can think, and it produces people who can make decisions based on evidence, rather than just on their own beliefs.  People who can question others, but also who are capable of questioning themselves, who are able then to change their opinion or change their stance when they’re faced with evidence that contradicts what they might have initially believed or thought.  It makes you more open-minded, and makes you a more thoughtful person, I think.  It makes us more tolerant, no doubt, which is important when you’ve got as diverse a society as Edmonton has.

It makes us more flexible and adaptable to change, and that’s important because there’s no doubt as the oil-based industry starts to run out of its raw material – which is not going to happen in the next 5 years, but eventually it’s going to run out – we need to start thinking now about what we’re going to do when we no longer have that source of revenue and that source of jobs.  An educated population will be able to adapt better, will be able to confront the new challenges that the province and the country’s faced with inevitably.  The worry now is with the way the education system at elementary, secondary and postsecondary are all being cut, and attacked by the government.  You’ve got to wonder if the population is going to be well-placed to change and adapt as they’re going to need to when the time comes that we need to be flexible.

Nikita: What role, if any, do you feel educators should play in increasing student morale when the future of their education is in question?

Dr. Holt: I think you can maintain morale – I’m thinking specifically about the students – as long as people feel that fighting back can actually make a positive difference and help change things for the better.  I think what educators can do is remind the students that if we stick together and speak with a united voice, then we’re going to be stronger and it gives us the best chance of being successful and fighting against these cuts, and dealing with whatever the government tries to throw at us.  We can lead by example.  Educators can also make sure the students are informed, which means the students are going to remain motivated to make themselves heard, to attend rallies, to attend marches, to write letters, to write emails, whatever it takes.  And also, to tell their parents, to tell their grandparents, to make sure the Edmonton public knows how damaging this is going to be long-term for Edmonton and for Alberta.

Nikita: You have told your students that they need to ensure their voices are heard.  What motivated you to say this to your class?

Dr. Holt: There were probably two things that motivated me to make that statement.  One was that, just a couple of days before I met the class, Minister Lukaszuk had declared, I think on his Twitter account, that he wasn’t hearing any negative feedback from students at all, and therefore, he was taking that to mean that the students were perfectly happy with the approach that he was taking.  That was not my understanding having spoken with students here.  And so, I thought, “Well, if you want feedback from students I’ll make sure you get feedback from students.”  I even contacted his personal secretary, and made sure we had his correct contact details so I could pass those out to students.  Hopefully now he’s had some feedback so he knows the students are most certainly not in agreement with what he’s doing and how he’s going about it.

The other reason, perhaps the most important reason, is that, at that time, the various factions or groups on campus were all kind of singing from different hymn books.  And it’s absolutely understandable that all of these groups are looking out for themselves because nobody else is looking out for them, to be honest.  But nobody was speaking out for the university.  Nobody was, at that time, saying, “Hey, forget all of the different factions that are involved here.  We’re all members of the university and at the end of the day it’s the university, its reputation, its standing, its ability to offer the best possible education and conduct research to the highest possible level by the top people in the world – that’s what’s going to be affected by these cuts, and people need to speak out for the university.”  And who better to speak on behalf of the university than the young Albertans whose futures are going to be made in part through what they experience during their time at the university.

Nikita: What do you enjoy the most about your teaching position?

Dr. Holt: I spend a lot of time thinking about a way to get a particular point across.  You can give students a scenario that they can relate to much more easily than whatever the abstract concept is.  Because you’re thinking about topics in ways that you may not have thought about the topics before – topics that you actually thought you understood inside out – you then start to question some of what you thought before, and think, “Well actually, this can’t really be true because…” and then you start an internal argument with yourself, and you revise your thinking around a particular topic.  So you learn a lot as a result of teaching; you also learn a lot from getting feedback from students.  I also like setting a tough exam, that really challenges the students, and then at the end of the tough exam, the class has done well.  You know that you’ve really pushed them, and that they’ve got it, that they understand what it was that you were trying to get across in that block of lectures.  So that’s very satisfying as well.

Nikita: What was the best advice you were given as a student, and what message would you like to send out to any student?

Dr. Holt: When I finished up in Dundee as an undergraduate, I had an offer from Cambridge University to do my graduate studies there, but the Chair of the Department, Ian Stevenson, who I had already told you was quite a terrifying individual, had offered me a position in his lab, and he’d offered me almost three times the salary that Cambridge was offering.  I spent many sleepless nights wondering what I should do, and the extra money was tempting because as a penniless undergraduate, I’d never had anything, and it would’ve been nice to be able to afford a new pair of jeans, or anything, and not to have to live off of baked beans and boiled rice!

I eventually decided I was going to accept the Cambridge offer, but the problem was that meant I had to go and tell Professor Stevenson that I wasn’t accepting his offer.  So, I kind of summoned up the courage to go and talk to him, and said “Sorry to tell you, but I’ve decided to accept the offer from Cambridge.”  And he looked at me, and he kind of walked round behind me, and I felt a pat on my shoulder, and he said, “Well done son, you made the right choice!”  I wish he’d told me that before!  He said, “If you get the chance to move, take it.  Don’t ever stay.  Employers want people who are willing to take a risk, who are willing to go outside their comfort zone, and experience something new, and expand their horizons.  And if you get the opportunity to go and work in Cambridge of all places, you don’t turn that opportunity down.”  So, you get a chance to go somewhere like that, grab it with both hands, and don’t even think twice because it’s a phenomenal experience.

The other advice I would give, and I got this from a member of our own department: “Students should not strive for success; they should strive for excellence.”  To be successful, all you have to do is to be better than the second best person.  If you strive for excellence, you’re always going to be doing the best possible job that you can do; you’ll know that you couldn’t have done any better.  And if somebody is still better than you, when you’ve done your best, then you’ll be more appreciative of what they’ve done.  Everything’s a competition, and the best chance of being successful is to attempt to be excellent, to do your very best.


Photo Credit: Edmonton Journal / Jimmy Jeong

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