There’s a framed poster of Albert Einstein on Alexander Gasparian’s office wall. There’s a quote above the more famous scientist’s head: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
“This is a major goal in my teaching philosophy,” says Gasparian, a clinical assistant professor in the University of South Carolina’s College of Pharmacy and a recipient of the 2023 Michael J. Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award. “My job is to explain to our students the causes of different diseases and the applications of specific drugs. It can be complicated, so first I must make it simple.”
The Einstein quote is merely a reminder. The native of Voronezh, Russia, is an accomplished researcher in the field of cancer biomarkers and anti-cancer drug development with dozens of peer-reviewed publications under his belt and more than 1,800 academic citations. But he is also a teacher, having learned that side of his profession by watching his parents. Mom taught Russian language and literature. Dad was a college physics professor.
“They both were pretty talented teachers,” says Gasparian. “Students remembered both my mom and my dad for decades. They still visited my mom after she retired, students who graduated many, many years ago. And it was same for my dad.”
And their keenest student? That was Alexander. The Gasparians recognized their son’s fascination with plants and animals at a young age, fed his appetite with books and encouraged him to enter biology competitions sponsored by his school and, later, by Lomonosov Moscow State University, where he studied molecular virology and earned a degree in biochemistry in 1993.
Initially drawn to infectious diseases thanks to a book he read on the famous virologist Lev Zilber, Gasparian gradually became interested in how certain viruses can lead to cancer. After earning a Ph.D. in experimental oncology at Blokhin Russian Cancer Research Center in 1997, he spent several years researching cancer drugs and genetic markers in the U.S., then joined USC’s College of Pharmacy in 2014.
At every step — from learning at his mother’s knee to studying at university to working alongside fellow researchers on anti-cancer drugs at Cleveland Biolabs — he didn’t just show his work; he had to understand the concepts well enough to explain them simply.
“Back at the time when I was a student, we didn't have much multiple-choice questions,” he says. “Every class, we were called by the teacher to stand in front of the blackboard and talk in front of class. Students learned how to express their thoughts.”
Gasparian recognizes the limitations of that individualized approach in larger classes. The 70-plus lectures he delivers each academic year are attended by upwards of 100 students at a time; calling each one of them to the front of the room would be unrealistic. But he makes up for that by closely tracking his students’ progress, particularly the ones who are struggling, and then working with them one-on-one during office hours.
Again, his parents provided the model — his mother in particular.
“My mom took her students to movies, they went out to observe nature,” he says. “She spent a lot of time with them besides class, and she never gave bad grades. If the student didn't perform well, she insisted they prepare the material again, and she stayed after class until the student gave her good answers so she could give them a higher grade.”
He doesn’t only monitor his students, though. He routinely reflects on his own performance. He never studied pedagogy — “I need to learn more about it,” he says — but he is constantly trying to refine his instructional strategies for large-size classes.
“I try to analyze what I did well and what I didn't do well, because nobody's perfect,” he says. “I always can forget some details, but sometimes I get into details too much.” He looks up at Einstein, then laughs at himself. “I believe it's a scientific thing.”