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McMicken’s Klooster Already a Winner

Matt Klooster receives his doctorate in biology, sells two houses, moves 900 miles, gets married and starts a new job in the next two months. He says life is 'wholly excellent.'

Date: 6/9/2008
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover, photojournalist
Doctoral student Matt Klooster is a winner. He recently won the “Excellence in Teaching” award from the University of Cincinnati's Graduate Studies Division. He is a doctoral candidate in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences, where he is a teaching assistant in the Department of Biological Sciences. When he thinks of the nominating packet for the award, he feels like a winner all over.

McMicken's Matt Klooster received the 'Excellence in Teaching' award from the Graduate Studies Division.

“I felt like I’d already won just reading some of the letters!” he exclaims. “I’d say it gave me goosebumps, but that sounds almost weird. But it did — to know that you’re getting through to someone and making a difference in their lives… it’s cool.”

He’s also a winner in his attitude. He wins your heart. It’s difficult to imagine listening to his infectious enthusiasm for nature and science without wanting to walk away and commit the rest of your life to studying parasitic plants — because that’s what Matt studies.

“As a teacher, Matt has excelled in all areas because he genuinely cares about his students and thus his own ability to accurately and effectively educate them,” says Assistant Professor Theresa Culley, his advisor in the Department of Biological Sciences. “When he first arrived, he was a bit hesitant about teaching (as with most new grad students), but he quickly found his feet and realized that he loved to share his enthusiasm of biology with other students. He would sometimes come see me after teaching a particular class because he was so excited that his students ‘got it’ and he just had to tell someone because he was so proud of them.”

Matt enjoys both research and teaching.
Matt enjoys both research and teaching.

Culley says that over time, she asked Matt to guest lecture in her course on medical botany.

“It got to the point where I would announce in class that he would be teaching in a few days, and some of the students would literally clap their hands together in anticipation. Whispers would then go around the room as some of the other students asked who this Matt character was — students would reply ‘Oh, he is so good! You'll like him.’ Many of the undergraduates had had Matt as their graduate teaching assistant in earlier biology courses so they knew the high quality of instruction that they would be receiving,” Culley points out. “After he taught my course, I would always receive e-mails or student comments after class that they really enjoyed his presentation and they learned so much.”

Matt tells of being a guest lecturer talking about plants in a class where a majority of the students were not biology majors.

“It’s typically boring stuff,” Matt admits. “But I started asking questions and I realized that three-quarters of the students were actually listening to me — that’s already a win in my book! Afterward I received three emails, in one of which the student said, ‘I went home and looked up more about what you were talking about.’”

“Matt has a unique way of grabbing the students’ attention with his accessible but yet knowledgeable approach and inspiring them to learn more,” Culley says. “In some cases, I have found myself using some of his approaches and teaching techniques in my own classes!”

Culley notes that in terms of his research, Matt has become one of the authorities in the nation, if not the world, on a special group of plant species known as myco-heterotrophs. These are plants that have lost their ability to photosynthesize (so they are not green) and instead survive by stealing resources from other organisms — namely mychorrizal fungi, which live in the soil and often have a symbiotic relationship with green plant species.

“Very little is known of these myco-heterotropic plants in terms of how they reproduce, what pollinates them and even how different individuals in a population are genetically related to one another,” she says. “So Matt’s research is crucial in our scientific understanding of these fascinating organisms that are so unlike most other plant species.”

One of Matt’s contributions to research is having developed a unique population genetic molecular marker. The genetic marker that Matt developed helps distinguish how plants are related to one another. When he describes his work, it becomes clear why he received what is sure to be the first of many teaching awards.

“I’m basically saying ‘Is that your Mom?’ ‘Is that your Dad?’” Matt says, sounding like a familiar children’s book.

“Matt first contacted me several years ago because he was interested in grad school and was fascinated by plants — especially orchids (he happens to grown many orchid species as a hobby),” she says. “He caught my attention early on because of his enthusiasm for plants and an intense desire to conduct research, not only for the purpose of obtaining a degree, but because he was really interested in learning what makes plants tick.”

Besides learning what makes plants “tick,” Matt also pays attention to what makes students tick. He remembers what it was like to be one. He graduated from St. Xavier High School and Xavier University.

Matt's specialties are understanding what makes plants and students tick.

“I was an average student in school,” he admits. “Then it suddenly clicked my senior year of high school and I actually made Dean’s list. What made the difference was that I finally learned how I learn. I realized that things wouldn’t stick in my brain unless I put them there in a certain way.”

Matt sees a difference in students from when he was a high-school and undergraduate student.

“I see less student respect, responsiveness and attendance,” he says. “I blame technology, to tell the truth. Teachers are relying too much on PowerPoint and the students are coming to expect it. Students have less ownership of the material; they don’t feel they have to read the textbook; their note-taking skills are suffering and they don’t feel they have to come to class.”

So Matt has developed a teaching style that makes them want to come to class.

“That’ll be my skill,” Matt says. “No matter how brilliant you are, if only 100 other people in the world can understand what you’re doing, what are you doing it for?”

“You’ve got to be able to express yourself,” he adds. As a testimony to this, the Graduate Studies Division recently awarded Matt with the "Excellence in Teaching" award.

In the fall, Matt will be off to Harvard University and the fair city of Cambridge, Mass., for a prestigious post-doctoral appointment and Mercer Fellowship.

“I hope I can keep my teaching skills sharp,” he says. “Because of the research, I won’t be able to teach for two years. Half teaching and half research would be ideal.”

For his post-doctoral research, he will be doing a number of different projects using the population genetic methodology. For one he will be examining a parasitic plant in Borneo. For another he will be initiating a project looking at glacial cycles in the Pacific Northwest using regions that didn’t suffer from catastrophic disturbances.

The flower that Matt will be examining is the Rafflesiaceae (Listen to the May 15, 2008, “90-Second Naturalist” podcast about Rafflesiaceae.) It is a parasitic plant that grows on grape vines, stealing carbohydrates from the vines and growing up to a meter and a half in size — the largest flowers in the world. They are called “carrion flowers” because they mimic dead meat in looks and smell like rotting flesh, driven to evolve these traits by fly and beetle pollinators.

Dr. Matt Klooster
Dr. Matt Klooster

“Floral trickery!” Matt calls it. “My contribution is that no one knows what one plant looks like. The parasite lives under the soil. So I will go around using the molecular marker to see who’s related to whom within the population, like 1-800-RU-MY-DAD.”

Matt explains that the purpose of a post-doctorate appointment is to learn “a ton more.”

“I want to be as well rounded as I can be,” he adds. “These are very different skills to add to my tool box: literature I need to read, theory I need to understand and molecular techniques I need to learn.”

So the teacher has again become the student. And so the cycle continues. 

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