From the time Dr. William Velhagen was a child growing up in the Philippines, he thought of teaching as a way to make the world better. “For me it was a way to improve humanity, to ease suffering… I loved learning and was always curious. I wanted a career as a scientist.”
Today, as an associate professor and the chair of the Natural Sciences Department, Velhagen encourages his students to look at how science can benefit the lives of others and to be eager to learn. “In many ways, I’m an idealist. Excellence for its own sake matters. If you really love what you are learning, you will stay up late to learn more. You’ll read books and news articles,” he says.
As advisor for Caldwell’s pre-professional programs, Velhagen wants his students to appreciate what it means to work hard toward their goals. Koumudi Thirunagaru, a science alumna now in medical school at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, benefited from being challenged in Velhagen’s classes. When she was a sophomore she took his physiology class and was instantly engaged by the way he taught. “He pushed our boundaries to think outside the box and challenge ourselves.”
In the classroom, Velhagen’s zeal for science inspires his students. Thirunagaru says his enthusiasm gave her a passion for a subject “as bland as histology” and trained her eye to look at pathology slides in medical schools. When it came time for her to apply to doctoral programs, she was grateful for his guidance. “He was extremely supportive and prompt with everything I needed and wanted so I could put my best foot forward.” After starting her studies at George Washington, she saw how her undergraduate background connected. “The clinical cases and clicker questions Dr. Velhagen did during his classes tied everything in and put it in perspective, making it easier for me to think about clinical cases as I began my journey in medical school.”
Velhagen believes it is important to keep the bar high for future doctors. “I know what it is like out there… I know what it takes to get into medical school.” He recalls how he attended medical school for over two years in his native Philippines—“those were great times”—before realizing he was being drawn to a different field.
The seeds of academic excellence were planted by his parents while he grew up in a family of six boys. They lived in the capital region of Manila—that “wonderfully, crazy, chaotic, cosmopolitan city”—where he attended La Salle Green Hills grammar and high schools run by the Christian Brothers in which studies and community service were emphasized. “The school as a whole gave me a great education.” He was a voracious reader, constantly taking books out of the school library or from his parents’ library. “I always loved science for its own sake… I was always inquisitive.” While studying as an undergraduate student at the University of the Philippines, he was invited to become a member of the selective, all-discipline, century-old honor society Phi Kappa Phi. Two years ago, he was honored when he was asked to be a founding member and the first president of Caldwell’s Phi Kappa Phi program. “It is a great way to bring faculty and students from different disciplines together.”
Velhagen first came to the United States for graduate school at Duke University. For his thesis, he was drawn to an understudied area of research focusing on the intersection of evolution and development of reptiles. “I don’t like following the crowd; even as a scientist I wanted to do something that is a little different.” It was “pure intellectual curiosity,” not utility, that led him to research snakes. The project—funded by the National Science Foundation—led to a competition against other students who today are accomplished scientists; he received the prestigious Stoye Award for Best Student Presentation in Genetics, Development and Morphology.
Velhagen’s career took him to teaching positions in science departments at universities in the United States including James Madison, Longwood and New York University. After experiencing large and small institutions, he appreciates the size of Caldwell where he can teach students throughout their four years rather than in only one or two classes during their college careers. “I see them grow from their first year to their fourth years… so that is gratifying.”
Velhagen considers himself the luckiest department chair in the university. “My colleagues are among the most proactive and collegial at Caldwell.” Velhagen and his colleagues begin guiding students in their freshman year as they prepare for medical, dental, veterinary or other professional schools. They teach them how to present themselves to admission officers and potential employers, how to prepare for mock interviews, how to put together a CV and how to study for the MCATs and other tests. During the time Velhagen has been overseeing the pre-professional programs, the department has greatly increased the number of students who have realized their dreams of being accepted into graduate and medical schools. He cites several reasons: “the students we are bringing in, my colleagues, the groundwork laid by others.” Still, it is clear that the numbers have gone up while he has been at the helm.
In addition to encouraging preparation for the health professions, the Natural Sciences Department encourages student research; the department is working to interweave more throughout the curriculum for all four years. Many science students have displayed their projects at the university’s annual Research and Creative Arts Day, which is aimed at promoting STEAM—science, technology, engineering, arts
For Velhagen, a busy father of two teenage girls, effective learning always comes back to that word “curiosity.” If educators want their students to be curious, he believes, they have to model it themselves. “A big problem with how we teach is that we make it appear that what is known is set in stone and final, but it is always growing,” he says. “There is so much we don’t know… being interested in something helps you go a long way.” He strives to stimulate a love of learning in his classroom by encouraging questions and breaking up his lectures with interesting tidbits. “Sometimes it’s medical” or sometimes it is “how an animal does a thing in a weird way,” he says. Other times he will have students take out their laptops and phones in class and answer questions via an app for their participation grade. “It helps keep them active. It gets them to work together,” explains Velhagen. This spring semester, Velhagen is teaching a new honors course, “Evolution’s Lessons,” for students in all academic programs. “It will be great to bring in perspective from the humanities and the social sciences,” he said. “Beyond the science of evolution, I have to think, ‘What is the historical context and what are the cultural implications?’”
Velhagen firmly believes that knowing about science is foundational to a good liberal arts education and to the betterment of society. “Altruism and science” go hand in hand. “It’s about making things better for the greater good, for society as a whole… It’s about giving students the ability to go to good schools, to acquire the skills and knowledge they need to get work.” Every educated citizen should know how science works, because it has the potential to create inventions to make new discoveries that will help the rest of humanity, he says. Education works, he stresses, when people can use their talents, when the economy is working because people have the skills they need. “Directly or indirectly, education helps us all.”