Unlap’s passion for teaching is contagious. His colleagues and students explain why.

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uab tino unlapIn the early 2000s, Tino Unlap, Ph.D., was a newly minted postdoctoral fellow in UAB’s Department of Medicine who had joined up with UAB faculty member and cell biologist Michael Wyss, Ph.D., and Jesse Hipps of the nonprofit Heritage Center to mentor local high schoolers. “The schools had asked for help in mentoring at-risk youth, which means students at risk of dropping out,” Unlap said.

Unlap quickly learned that, to keep the students’ attention, he needed to get hands-on as soon as possible. “They didn’t like to sit in the classroom and listen to lectures,” said Unlap, now a professor in the Department of Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences in the School of Health Professions and director of the school’s Biotechnology Program. “I would explain to them how insulin is made in five minutes and then we would go into the lab and clone the insulin gene. They loved it.”

The results spoke for themselves. The program, known as Project Seed, took in 10 students per year for a decade, until funding ran out. Over that time, “all 100 students graduated from high school, 97 went on to college and 94 majored in an area of STEM,” Unlap said. “I just got a call from Jesse, who is now in Cincinnati, and he said that one of our last students just graduated with an M.D./Ph.D.”

"Really applied education"

Unlap used the same technique with success in his classes for undergraduates, graduate students and beyond. “I decided that was the method — really applied education, where you can do the lecture by demonstration,” Unlap said. “You touch and feel as well as hear.” It wasn’t restricted to science, either. Up until last year, when his schedule just grew too crowded, he says, Unlap also served as director of Teaching Foundations for the UAB Center for Teaching and Learning. “Instead of just complaining about how much students cheat in this digital age, he recognizes that there is something we can do to keep students truly learning,” a colleague said.

“I decided that was the method — really applied education, where you can do the lecture by demonstration,” Unlap said. “You touch and feel as well as hear.”

In more than two decades at UAB, Unlap has earned a reputation as a “highly valued professor and leader who not only is passionate about teaching but daily inspires others toward innovation and excellence,” in the words of one colleague. This year, he is the recipient of the 2023 Ellen Gregg Ingalls/UAB National Alumni Society Award for Lifetime Achievement in Teaching, presented annually to a full-time UAB faculty member who, throughout their career at UAB, has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to teaching.

To receive the award — the highest award for teaching presented by UAB — the faculty member must be a former recipient of the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching (Unlap received that award in 2014) and have served UAB for 20 or more years as a full-time regular faculty member. Unlap will be recognized during the annual Faculty Convocation.

Seeing beyond the classroom

Unlap is famous at UAB for his focus on the translational aspect of teaching. In his Scholars Profile, Unlap says his goals for each class meeting are “to motivate students to see beyond the classroom, to see each lecture in view of the problems that ail society and to instill in the students their profound role of translating knowledge into discoveries that will alleviate human suffering.”

“He can always talk to you in a way that makes you feel like you are capable of anything.”

In her nomination letter for the Lifetime Achievement in Teaching award, a biotechnology student explained how Unlap puts this philosophy into practice. “He can always talk to you in a way that makes you feel like you are capable of anything,” the student wrote. During her freshman year, the student volunteered to help Unlap in his lab in order to practice lab techniques. “He asked me what I was hoping to gain from the lab experience,” and when the student mentioned she was hoping to learn skills she could use outside the lab as well, Unlap “emphasized the importance of having very good critical thinking skills and how they can help drive you toward success in your career,” the student wrote. Unlap then gave her a concrete exercise to practice. “He told me … it could be as simple as driving in the car somewhere and looking at your surroundings for a problem to solve …. Exploring possibilities and coming up with creative solutions and then testing one of them is essentially what happens in research, he said, and practicing with scenarios like that helps train your brain in this way of higher-order thinking.”

Excelling beyond their expectations

In Unlap’s classes, “we work under the umbrella of a research project over a semester,” he said. “One year, we detected the gene responsible for latent tuberculosis, and that work was published. Another year, we worked on a treatment for Parkinson’s. This year, we are working on finding a treatment for Bainbridge-Ropers Syndrome. The students begin with cloning the gene with the mutation that causes Bainbridge-Ropers Syndrome and work up to really complicated techniques. These students can then go into any lab and they will know more than any single person there. And they are so engaged in getting to the treatment that they don’t realize they are learning to use a pipette, how to grow bacteria, how to amplify a gene.”

"These students can then go into any lab and they will know more than any single person there."

But Unlap’s students do always realize that they can come to him when they are having trouble. “He is always willing to assist, answer questions, guide and motivate students to excel beyond their expectations,” a former student wrote in another nomination letter. “Tino routinely and faithfully arrives hours before classes begin to tutor students on any subject they find difficult. Among Tino’s many talents is his gift of explaining any challenging academic concepts in simple terms and then building your knowledge up from a solid fundamental foundation.”

Unlap’s tireless efforts have built the biotechnology program from the master’s degree that he launched in 2009 to include a doctoral track and several certificates, noted Kathy Nugent, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences and executive director of UAB’s Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Biotechnology is “a complex area that combines the soft skills of business and the hard science of advances in health care and other disciplines,” Nugent wrote. “Because he always works to meet his students where they are, Tino has grown this program, so we also offer a graduate certificate and a doctoral degree in this field today.”

Becoming "The Biotech Guy"

Unlap freely admits that he used his inspirational techniques to draw students to his fledgling program. “Nobody had ever heard of biotechnology in 2009,” Unlap said. “I had to go all around the Southeast and shake hands with everyone I met and tell them about biotech. I did the same at UAB — when I would go into the Rec Center to work out, they would call me ‘The Biotech Guy.’ Every once in a while, a student would come down the hallway and ask where they could find this or that program. I would say, ‘Why don’t you step into our lab and I’ll tell you about biotechnology instead?’”

“Every time I hear Tino talk about biotechnology,” a colleague wrote, “his passion is so contagious that I find myself wondering if I need to enroll in the program.”

What is his pitch? “Over 70 percent of us end up doing something we never thought we would do,” Unlap said. “So make sure you identify a job in your future that will stimulate your thinking, will help you live on the edge 24/7 and is never going to be boring — and that will allow you the flexibility to work in any industry under the sun. I have that profession: That is biotech. Our graduates are working in government, working with private companies, starting their own companies.”

“Every time I hear Tino talk about biotechnology,” a colleague wrote, “his passion is so contagious that I find myself wondering if I need to enroll in the program.”

Always ready to take on a new challenge

Despite his responsibilities with the biotechnology program, Unlap continues to work each summer with high school students and undergraduates as part of the Community Outreach Development program with his longtime friend Mike Wyss.

“Tino annually introduces 40 to 60 of our research interns to the exciting careers that they can reach, and each year, he has been their top-rated instructor,” Wyss said. “He has also been the go-to faculty member to link up other faculty and students with emerging startups and other companies in Alabama. And he is always ready to take on a new challenge.”

Unlap is determined that his students will always be ready for challenges as well. “I tell them, ‘There are two types of people in the world — consumers and developers,’” Unlap said. “The consumers make up 99.9999 percent of the world’s population. Developers are the rest. The consumer’s brain every once in a while shuts off — it vegetates, watches TV. The developer’s brain is on 24/7, but in a good way. Everything they see is a potential innovation. A consumer takes a look at an iPhone and says, ‘I want to buy it.’ A developer says, ‘I bet I can make it better.’ I tell my students, ‘Life will never be monotonous if you are a developer.’”