May 13, 2020
Murphy Award winner: Susie Swithers
Note: The profile below is part of Purdue Today's ongoing series on Purdue's winners of the 2020 Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award in Memory of Charles B. Murphy, Exceptional Early Career Award and Excellence in Instruction Award for Lecturers.
Susie Swithers, professor of neuroscience and behavior in the Department of Psychological Sciences, has a big goal in teaching: to get her students to understand and think critically about the science they’re exposed to and how that science gets interpreted in ways that affect their lives.
“I want them to learn that science is a process that’s done by people,” Swithers says. “What that means is that science is affected by who those scientists are. Even the questions that scientists are allowed to pursue are affected by other people. Understanding these facts can help them expand the ways they think about science, and how critical it is to support scientific endeavors.”
Swithers has been at Purdue for 25 years, and from 2014 to 2019 was the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Psychological Sciences. She redesigned and modernized the undergraduate curriculum, emphasizing real-world application and the potential for careers. In recent years, the department has seen more than a 50% an increase in enrollment of majors.
Swithers teaches a variety of courses, including Elementary Psychology, Drugs and Behavior, and Foods and Behavior.
Teaching in and improving the Psychological Sciences program are just two ways Swithers helps students succeed. She created an innovative program to connect students to full-time paid work experiences with employers in Greater Lafayette related to their field of study. Psychology students have worked at Cornerstone Autism Center and Valley Oaks Health.
“Co-operative education programs have a long history here at Purdue, but they had mainly been focused on engineering and technology fields,” Swithers says. “I wanted to make sure that students in Psychological Sciences could also benefit from getting this kind of practical experience, where students alternate semesters of full-time work with semesters where they are taking classes. This meant crafting a pathway within our major and forging connections with employers who could benefit from having Purdue psychology students working for them. It’s still a relatively new and small program, but I think it has been valuable for both the students and the employers, and I hope it can expand in the future.”
Additionally, Swithers supports students through advising and undergraduate research. Undergraduates in her lab frequently present research posters at national scientific meetings and regularly have merited authorship on peer-reviewed scientific publications.
One of the most rewarding things about teaching, Swithers says, is hearing from her students who think about the world a little differently because of a course they’ve taken with her. She explains, “The students are so inquisitive and curious, and they look at the world in a way that’s so much different from mine. The students are the future, so getting to know them at this stage of their lives is rewarding because they have so much to look forward to.”
A former student said, “Dr. Swithers opened my eyes to a world I never thought I’d be in and was responsible for a lot of the aspiration I had to become who I am today.”
As an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, Swithers was inspired in a similar way. She took a lecture class and lab in Psychobiology and was fascinated. She began to work in a research lab in the Department of Psychology.
“I’ve always known that the course of my life was affected dramatically by an excellent professor, Dr. Peter Brunjes, who taught the first class, and an excellent undergraduate research mentor, Dr. Richard McCarty,” Swithers says. “I’ve tried to live up to what they created for me.”