Hammer Enjoys Engaging Students in Research

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When you walk into Brian Hammer’s classroom, you might be greeted by the sounds of hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj or the Godfather of Soul James Brown. It all depends on the day’s lecture.

“Before class, I play a song that is related to what I’ll be discussing,” said Hammer, an assistant professor in the School of Biology. “For example, if we are talking about how genes are activated, I might play David Guetta and Nicki Minaj’s ‘Turn Me On,’ or if I’m talking about bacteria transferring DNA, I might play ‘Sex Machine’ by James Brown.”

Music is one of the ways that Hammer, who arrived at Georgia Tech in 2008, tries to  make often-complicated material understandable to students.

“My research focuses on concepts like cell-to-cell communication called ‘quorum sensing,’ which can be a challenge to wrap your brain around,” he said. “But I love the challenge of finding ways to explain my research to anyone — from my college students to my wife’s second graders.”

Read on to learn more about Hammer and his time at Tech.

How did you get to Tech?          
While doing my post-doctoral work at Princeton University, I realized that I wanted to work at an institution that was supportive of an interdisciplinary approach to research. At Georgia Tech, biologists are integrated with engineers and that appealed to me.

Tell us about your research.       
I study how bacteria use chemicals to communicate with their environments. For example, Vibrio cholerae, which causes the fatal disease cholera, lives in the ocean.  When it comes into contact with chitin from crab shells, the chitin acts as a signal that flips an “on” switch in the bacteria. The cholera bacteria then start to bring in DNA from their environment that can provide the microbes with new genetic material, allowing them to, for example, make new toxins or other disease-causing factors.

What is an average day like for you?    
I teach three days a week and then spend my remaining time doing office work, meeting with students and trying to inspire them, and presenting at meetings.  

Name a misconception that people have about your profession.
A seventh grade teacher who I collaborate with each summer told me that he thought all microbiologists used microscopes — but we don’t. Actually, most of our days are spent using pipettes to dispense fluid containing DNA into tiny tubes.  

What is the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without?
My iPhone.

What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced while teaching?
Coming to the realization that all of my students aren’t little clones of me, meaning that the way I learned things and did research might not work for them. I’m always reminding myself to think of students like I think of my successful colleagues. Just because the students’ approaches are different from mine doesn’t mean they can’t be just as effective.  

What do you think about the increasing popularity of massive open online courses?
I think we have to be open to them, because they are coming whether we like it or not. Personal interaction is important to me in my classes, and I think some of that will be lost in these courses. But I would be open to teaching one.

What is your favorite spot on campus?  
I like the biotech quad. The grassy area is a quiet place, and I love the fact that I’m also surrounded by science.

Where is your favorite place to have lunch?  
It would have to be Taqueria del Sol, and I’ll order enchiladas or fish tacos.

Tell us something unique about yourself.  
When I was an undergraduate at Boston College, I sang in the university chorale and had the opportunity to sing for Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Basilica.

What was the greatest risk you ever took — and did it pay off?  
While I was completing my master’s in ecology, it was difficult to admit that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. It was a huge relief when I was able to admit this. I was finally able to figure out that microbiology was what I was interested in.



  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: Amelia Pavlik
  • Created: 01/07/2013
  • Modified By: Fletcher Moore
  • Modified: 10/07/2016


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