Jan Serie helped shape, mentor teachers

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 20, 2008 - 7:13 PM

The Macalester College biology professor left a strong impression on students and faculty. "She made it OK to stand up and do the right thing ... it was expected."

Jodi Goldberg was always struck by how interested her mentor, Macalester College professor Jan Serie, remained in Goldberg's own teaching career in Hamline University's biology department. "It felt like such a personal thing, but now I'm finding that so many people felt exactly the way I did," Goldberg said. "For so many students, she was that one professor we encounter who changes our lives."

Janet R. Serie, 56, died Sept. 17 at her home in St. Paul of late-stage ovarian cancer. Her 25 years at Macalester were spent teaching thousands of students, doing research into immunology and diabetes, and finally in administration, helping fellow faculty members develop into finer teachers.

Her many awards include being named Minnesota College Science Teacher of the Year by the Minnesota Academy of Science; the Four-Year College Teaching Award by the National Association of College Biology Teachers; the Sears Award for Excellence in Teaching and Campus Leadership and, in 2007, the prestigious Thomas Jefferson Award for teaching, both by Macalester.

High honors, yet many of her students may better remember her animated three-dimensional impression of the female reproductive system, or how she taught a course in cell biology from the perspective of an adrenal gland.

Sarah Moeller enrolled at Macalester as a journalism major intending to write children's books, but after one lecture with Serie, "she had my full attention. She had a presence that took up the whole room." Moeller changed her major, went on to found a medical consulting firm in Minneapolis, and for the past 14 years has returned to speak with Serie's senior classes about careers in medicine.

"In Jan's classes, you had to work hard, but when you did it right and she was proud of you, it was the best feeling," Moeller said. "She made it OK to stand up and do the right thing -- and it wasn't just OK; it was expected."

Moeller added that Serie also kept an eye out for students from small schools who, like her, may have found college intimidating. "She became the other parent for so many of us."

Serie was born in Brookings, S.D. She graduated from the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph in 1975, then earned a Ph.D. in anatomy from the University of Minnesota. She taught for three years at the College of St. Catherine before joining Macalester in 1983. For seven years, she was the resident scientist for KTCA's "Newton's Apple," helping the public-television program win an Emmy for outstanding daytime children's series.

In 2002, Serie was appointed the founding director of the Macalester Center for Scholarship and Teaching, which focuses on developing and supporting the faculty. "People refer to it as CST, but it's not infrequently referred to as "the house that Jan built," said Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College.

"Jan Serie has, directly or indirectly, touched the life of virtually everyone who has been part of the Macalester community for the past 25 years," he said. "It's truly rare that you find a person who is just universally highly regarded by her colleagues. I mean, it's not in the nature of colleges and universities to act and think that collectively, so when you find a person who encourages people to think institutionally, you have a real gem."

Off campus, Serie took up dressage riding later in life, and often could be found spending time with her horse, Loegan. She also gained a reputation as having a particular expertise with plumbing and electrical work, making her a much sought-after friend in an emergency.

Serie is survived by longtime partner Lin Aanonsen; sisters Joanne Keyes and Connie Gill; and numerous nieces and nephews.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. next Sundayat the Macalester College Chapel.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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