A professor’s path: Dr. Wallenfang

Liliana Greyf, Staff Writer

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In second grade, after attending a job fair, Dean of Faculty and Biology teacher Dr. Matthew Wallenfang decided that teaching was his passion.

“My mom used to say that I have always loved to explain things to people, so I think that it is something that came almost instinctively to me,” Wallenfang said.

However, Wallenfang did not teach only high school students from the start of his career. He began his career teaching at Barnard College as an Assistant Professor in Biology, and he loved his five years there, he said.. “It was the perfect place to combine the research that I was doing for my post doctorate and be able to teach a number of classes.”

As a post doctorate, Wallenfang researched fruit flies and fundamental questions surrounding their aging process. He continued this research at Columbia.

The four classes he taught: Introductory Biology, Cellular Biology, Cellular Biology Lab, and Biology Seminar ranged from eight to 200 students. Teaching these classes, Wallenfang learned how to engage his students, a skill that would be useful once he came to the school.

His larger classes, taught mostly to freshmen and biology majors, were more lecture based. “I tried to have as much student participation as possible, but you become constrained when you are up on a stage in a lecture hall with that many students,” he said. Although he found he was able to teach large classes effectively, he prefered smaller classes and the interactions with students they provided. He found that the more he was able to communicate with his students, the more he understood the best way to teach them.

As Wallenfang continued his work at Barnard, he wanted to look for an opportunity that provided more education than research. “Barnard was definitely a full time job.” At the time, he was spending his summers and free time in the lab, continuing his post-doctoral research.

“My friend started telling me about how amazing it was to be a highschool teacher working with younger students, and having summers off, and all of the wonderful things that exist with being a high school teacher. It got me thinking that that was something I should pursue,” he said.

When Wallenfang started at the school, he was influenced by how similar Barnard’s and the school’s curricula were, so he often found himself teaching in the same lecture style. However, the small class sizes have given him the ability to discuss topics with his students.

“I have, over the years, gotten [my classes] to be more and more discussion based. I take questions from the class and let them go wherever they will go. My students will probably remark on the fact that we tend to go off on a lot of tangents, which I think is great. It is something that you can’t do nearly so much in a university,” Wallenfang said.

Even though biology is inherently a lecture based class, “he finds a way to integrate the whole class and hear everyone’s voice,” Remy Wu (11) said. This promotes a class of students that are more involved and interested in their work.

Whenever someone asks a question that is off-topic, he is always able to connect it to what we are learning or talking about, Halley Robbins (11) said. “He really knows his material.”

It is clear that Wallenfang loved the research he did at Columbia; he refers back to it in his teaching, Wu said.