Robert Kerns has received the 2022 College of Pharmacy Award for Teaching Excellence.
The native of Edgewood, Iowa, earned a PhD from the college in 1996. Now he teaches as a professor in Medicinal and Natural Products Chemistry (MNPC) in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Experimental Therapeutics (PSET).
Kerns teaches and mentors students at all levels—PhD students, Doctor of Pharmacy students, undergraduates, and others in his chosen subject area. He also conducts research and engages in service activities that demonstrate his commitment to the college’s mission. His research aims to fight infectious diseases, inflammatory lung disease, obesity, and cancer by perfecting promising molecules in the lab.
Students learn, in part, through staffing faculty labs. One of Kerns’ students' first lessons is that they have found a compassionate and respectful mentor who stands ready to provide support and flexibility.
A graduate student from India said he was grateful that when he arrived 30 minutes late for orientation, Kerns was kind and welcoming. "He also inquired about my jetlag,” the accomplished young graduate said. “That meant so much to me as an international student finding his feet in a new country halfway across the world.”
Kerns shared that his teaching philosophy is best summarized by a quote in a 1984 Nick Nolte movie called “Teachers." The teacher (played by Nolte) tells the school’s vice-principal that the school wasn’t built for administrators, educators, unions, lawyers, or related institutions. Nolte says:
“It was built for the kids. They’re not here for us. We’re here for them.”
Current and former students who wrote nomination letters gushed about working and learning under him.
In letter after letter, they spoke about how he provided them with resources, support, and flexibility. They said he guided them into being the best versions of themselves and helped them blaze personalized paths to their dream careers.
"Dr. Kerns provides a type of support that is rare in many PhD programs," said Arturo Aguirre, ’19 PhD, now a senior scientist at AbbVie.
When faced with the choice between putting resources behind a student’s success or advancing research in his lab—which is powered by students—whenever at all humanly possible, the student always wins.
Halfway through his PhD program, Aguirre returned from an industrial internship, excited about science that was new to the Kerns lab. “I realized that this work would include a lot of independent experimental design,” Aguirre said. Kerns was benevolent, even identifying and connecting his then-student to other experts in the field. “I was able to pivot my career trajectory and excel.”
Hannah Gruenwald, a PhD candidate, had a similar experience of pivoting post-internship.
“If students approach Dr. Kerns with a new skill or technique to learn, he is always eager to teach or connect students to someone who can,” she said.
Students and faculty said he is a staunch, active supporter of diversity in education.
Kerns’ peer nominators also said he takes new faculty members under his wing and gives them strategies to succeed in the challenging roles that are new to them.
Former student Ernane Souza, RPh, ’18 PhD, said Kerns “inspired me to become a researcher and teacher in higher education.” Kerns, his mentor, put in a lot of effort to get Souza accepted into a unique pharmacy precepting site at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics as “a non-traditional student pharmacist,” which led to his ability to become a licensed pharmacist in Iowa, Souza said.
Kerns served for five years as chair of the PSET department. He also is the director of a T32 training grant with primary responsibility for organizing its industrial internships. At the PharmD level, he has served on curriculum committees for two different accreditation cycles and led the effort to refocus teaching efforts of PSET faculty to adapt to a new curriculum. He is also a course coordinator for a required course for professional students.
Kerns received additional teacher of the year awards in 2004 and 2008.