Dr. Phillip Pekala, recently retired chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, said he saw many changes in medical education during his 33-year career with the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University.
The biggest: “Technology entered the classroom,” he said. “When I began teaching, I wrote lectures on a blackboard. Now students have the PowerPoint presentations two weeks before the lectures begin.”
The world of medical research also changed dramatically during that time, according to Pekala. During the three decades he spent studying the manipulation of fat cell metabolism, he said he witnessed “molecular medicine coming into vogue.
“There have been more advances in the past 30 years than there were in the previous 200 years,” he said. “When students in the current medical class graduate, they will look at patients’ DNA to diagnose them. It’s exciting to have been a part of that.”
Pekala joined Brody’s faculty in 1981 and served as chair of the biochemistry department from 2006 until his retirement in December 2014. During his tenure at ECU, he was the recipient of many teaching recognition awards, including the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Pekala employed a Socratic teaching style, favoring small groups and interactive experiences in both the classroom and the laboratory.
“My method was to provide a wealth of background information to my students, then allow them to pull out individual facts by giving them the right set of questions to get the bigger picture,” he said. “I wanted them to think on their feet.”
Pekala said he also learned from his medical and graduate students. “They taught me to appreciate and enjoy the privilege of figuring out how nature works,” he said.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Pekala earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania, his master’s in chemistry from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and his doctorate in biochemistry from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship in biological chemistry at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1981 before coming to Brody “for the chance to build something new and exciting.”
His immediate retirement plans include spending time with family and lots of skiing, he said.
“With Dr. Pekala’s retirement, the Brody School of Medicine has reached another milestone in its maturity,” said Dr. Paul Cunningham, dean and senior associate vice chancellor for medical affairs at Brody. “He faithfully served the mission of the Brody School for over thirty years. His contributions have been nothing less than outstanding.”
Dr. Joseph Chalovich, who has been with Brody’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology since 1984, will serve as interim chair.
– Amy Adam Ellis