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Dr. Michael Adams

[Mike Adams photo]

Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences

An impassioned and innovative educator, Dr. Michael Adams has taught multi-disciplinary cardiovascular science courses in undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs in Life Sciences, Medicine, and Nursing. He has trained more than 30 graduate students and has twice been the recipient of the Faculty of Health Sciences Education Award.

"It’s not the answers, but the questions. It’s not about just learning the available knowledge, but being inspired to fill the gaps in knowledge."

Taking a spark and starting a fire...

From the time he was ten years old, Michael Adams loved the challenge of a good puzzle. “I was one of those kids who loved doing projects for science fairs – everything from building mosques to grafting house plants. Once I found an old book about grafting fruit trees and tried grafting four of our house plants together. They grew and the project won at the regional science fairs. I just tried something, investigated and kept asking questions.”

The same curiosity led Adams to his interest in the areas of cardiovascular pharmacology and sexual medicine. This widely respected researcher, now Interim Head of the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, had the initial direction of his career determined by an inspiring professor at the University of Western Ontario (UWO).

“I wasn’t particularly motivated during my first two years at university because it was all content-driven stuff that was thrown at us, but in my third and fourth years, I found cardiovascular sciences, physiology and pharmacology courses with some creative laboratory opportunities. They let me set up labs like a teaching assistant would, so instead of three hours, I could do six.”

UWO Professor Bob Kline, who ran a fourth year cardiovascular sciences course, grabbed his interest in particular.

“It was a very hard course. He gave us stuff on slides, concepts, diagrams, and told us to figure it out, to discover what it means. We had to look it up. I thought, ‘I can do this, I can figure this out,’ and it turned me on to cardiovascular sciences big time. It was the puzzle that worked for me.”

Adams joined the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Queen’s as an Assistant Professor in 1988, initially with a joint appointment in the Department of Anaesthesiology. He was promoted to Professor in 1998 and during the 2009/2010 academic year, served as Acting Head of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. Adams went on to get his master’s and PhD (in Pharmacology and Toxicology) at UWO and then got a post doctorate Fellowship to develop his research skills in Australia for a couple of years. He has published more than 120 scientific papers and chapters.

A passion for questions and puzzles...

Michael Adams teaching photo]

Even after all this time in academics, Adams is still excited about the work he does.

“I always wanted the translational aspect of it. I wanted to have something I could take and explain to my parents. I liked to have a story for people. What I liked most is that there were so many gaps of knowledge when you integrated a system because you had to make sense of 20 systems. For example, say you are treating high blood pressure – why do some drugs that lower blood pressure work long-term and others don’t? The interaction between a drug and the body is an intervention. I am intervening in the systems of the body and then I am going to watch what happens to it. The body is fighting back for a reason. How do we fool the body into being accepting of the resulting new low blood pressure since it has been living with high blood pressure for years? We want it to be a good adjustment. That is the puzzle. That’s exciting to me.”

“One of the things I got involved in, in 1993, was with urologist Jeremy Heaton, who wanted to collaborate with me to work on developing a drug for what was called ‘impotence’ at the time. Our drug was bought by a pharmaceutical company and made it to market in Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. We then realized that our research had a translational opportunity to it, and began to patent the ideas. You have to protect intellectual property, or no one will want to develop it further for fear that someone can just take it and it’s gone.”

By 1997 Adams and his colleagues had a platform of ideas and formed a company. And Adams now has 16 patented inventions. In recognition of these inventions, he recently received the "Most Prolific Inventor, Life Sciences Award" from Queen’s PARTEQ Innovations.

And even with so much on the go, this energetic professor and father of three had already taken on another role– that of sports coach. “My kids all did a couple of sports, so at the peak, I was coaching six teams – hockey, basketball, soccer. I figured I was going to be there anyway, so why not?” Even today nothing gets in the way of his noon workout at Queen’s!

How to instill the desire to learn...

“When I was young, I wasn’t self-aware enough to think about what made a good teacher. I just knew what teachers I liked and didn’t like. In elementary school my grade three and four teachers loved my energy, and in Grade 5 I’d had a good coach. They valued the out-of-the-box stuff I did and tried to encourage my natural abilities.”

“But I believe that a good teacher is someone who can get a student to want to learn on their own. It is a person who can ignite a spark in someone, encourage them to like learning, show them it can be fun. To have a student notice a gap in knowledge and have them want to fill that gap, not just learn the available knowledge, but want to discover what was not yet known, is the mark of a good teacher.”

“If I can bring that out in students, and have them engaged and firing questions at me, that’s when I feel like I am winning. I love it if they have very cool, in depth questions and I have to say I have no idea what the answer is. That has brought tears to my eyes because really, it’s not about the answers, but the deep questions.”

Like many excellent teachers, Adams gets back as much as he gives. “I have a fourth year course in the Life Sciences with 24 students. That one course is my anchor, and allows me to impact on students in a way that I dreamed of. They want to achieve and do beyond what they think they can. I encourage them and get this relationship with the students. It’s the heart and core of me as a professor.”

Cutting down on lecture time...

[Michael Adams teaching photo]

Always looking for new ways to inspire students, Adams and colleagues Dr. Jim Brien and Dr. William Racz developed a course that was dubbed “Therapeutic Thursday” – a second term, first year medicine therapeutics course. They wanted to offer the 100 students in the class a bridge between foundational knowledge and application.

“We recognized that content-driven lectures are not always a good learning experience. So it was decided to have a revolution such that every single course in undergraduate medicine must go below 50% lecture content. Ours ended up being 42% lecture content - where 74 hours of lecture time was cut down to 28, and we created a hybrid of lectures and team-based learning.”

In the first-year Therapeutics course, the morning starts with a traditional hour and a half lecture. But well before the class, students are assigned reading that highlights the areas they are going to study. They have to come prepared, because the lecture is follwed by a Readiness Assessment Test.

"It is our experience that students arrive prepared because they know they are being tested," says Adams. "If they have done the work, they can do the test in five minutes. Once handed in, they then are tested, with the same questions, in groups. “Out of 11 tests in the term, we only count the top 8. They only have a limited amount of information to study, so it’s a good study tool. It works like a charm”

Once the testing is complete, students move into small group learning and begin to apply knowledge they have learned from the beginning of the course. Students work on cases that are structured with outcomes that are therapeutically-based or have a pharmacological spin. Two or three professors teach the class as a tag team. One engages the class and does the lecture, while the other gages how well the session is going and makes appropriate adjustments.

Brien says, “If at least two faculty members are there for this dynamic, small group learning situation, it really enriches the learning experience for the students and for the faculty. We learn to consider other aspects, especially in the clinical cases. So there is no stratification between the faculty and students. Yes, we stand as a resource, but the students are really driving their own learning.”

Adams says, “One of the best sessions we did this year was to examine what a drug does when it is given intravenously. We had recorded responses from previous experimentation, and we asked the students why the drug had the response it did. Before, they just would have heard the answer on a video. But this way, they have to interact. Group learning just starts happening.”

Groups are given cards that they put up when they are finished. The cards give their status – whether they are 85-100% sure they have the right answer, 70-84% and so on right down to “Have no clue!” Then, groups discuss their decision.

Brien says, “The description used for the small group learning session is that of the argyle pattern on socks – students review information, have a lecture, are tested individually, then put in their small groups to look at clinical cases. We go from a large group to small groups, then small groups to a large group.”

Racz adds, “This class is just one piece in the formative education of doctors, but one we hope it will lead to engagement with lifelong learning. I have a group of MD friends who still meet once a month to discuss advances in their practices so they can learn from each other.”

In the end, Adams' philosophy of good teaching is simple: 

“It’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know. I’ll have to look that one up.’ I feel that students just want to know that you care, and are confident, prepared and organized. They want to know that you are in control, and that you are engaged and full of enthusiasm.”

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