Dr. Christine Connelly, an assistant professor who teaches in the School of Nursing and, in 2023, was one of just 13 UVA faculty to earn an All-UVA Teaching Award, uses her son’s sports equipment, a bathing suit and artificial fruit to help her students remember scientific details, processes and all kinds of cells.
Her use of props is natural. She remembers riding in an elevator in medical school, looking at the ceiling pattern and thinking “liver tissue.”
“Liver tissue under the microscope is kind of organized in these little hexagons. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s going on here? People just look at the ceiling, and I’m seeing a liver.’ I don’t know if that was funny or sad!” she said.
All first-year nursing students—70 to 75, depending on the class—take her yearlong anatomy and physiology course. Connelly also teaches a smaller group microbiology each semester; that course additionally admits undergraduates from the College of Arts & Sciences who are interested in health-related fields.
In her anatomy and physiology course, Connelly has shown a golf club to represent myosin, a protein in muscles that looks like it has a head and a tail. The long handle of the golf club looks like the tail, and “when that head, the golf club head, interacts with actin, another protein that looks like the golf ball, you have a contraction, and that’s when your muscle shortens.
When she was preparing a lesson on pseudomonas, she thought of the most famous Mona, Mona Lisa as painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Searching online, she found a reproduction of the image on a bathing suit as well as Mona Lisa herself wearing a bathing suit.-
“So, when [students are] hearing all these new words, at least when they go back and study, they can say, ‘Oh yeah, the myosin was the golf club and actin was the golf ball,’ and I think that makes it less intimidating,” she said.
Her students appreciate Connelly and her approach.
“I like her attitude,” Kaylee Lamonica, a student from Virginia Beach, said after a recent class. “She’s always excited to teach.” Lamonica added that Connelly’s stories and props help students learn the scientific concepts.
Fourth-year student Noura Abousy, who’s majoring in global public health and took Connelly’s microbiology course last semester, said she would recommend Connelly’s courses to anyone, just for the chance to get to know her.
“She woke you up and made you want to learn,” said Abousy, who also turned to Connelly for advice about applying to dental schools. “Microbiology is a hard topic to digest. She made you want to be engaged with the material. You got to know who she was because she would use examples from her own life. You learned about her and about the topic.”
“If you have something that’s more familiar, that’s more relaxing,” Connelly explained. “Something that’s not familiar is exciting, but it’s not relaxing. I want my students to feel as relaxed as they possibly can, because I think then, that’s how you can learn.”
When she was preparing a lesson on pseudomonas, she thought of the most famous Mona, Mona Lisa as painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Searching online, she found a reproduction of the image on a bathing suit as well as Mona Lisa herself wearing a bathing suit.
That, she said, fit the bill because pseudomonas is a bacteria, and bacteria usually like a wet environment. “You can get an infection from pseudomonas in a hot tub,” Connelly noted.
Plus, “pseudo” means fake and the images of Mona Lisa, whether in or on a bathing suit, are fake. A former student told her she always remembers that one.
In a previous class on respiration, Connelly brought in a bunch of glass grapes to show what the alveoli, or small air sacs in the lungs, look like. She found that item in a thrift store.
The props change often, year-to-year and on the fly, depending on whether her students seem to understand her quirky connections.
Connelly said she thinks her background might have influenced her penchant for linking unlike things and using unusual
props to illustrate the interior world of the human body.
With her father serving as a commander in the United States Navy, the family moved around as she was growing up. When she was trying to learn a new language, like Danish in Denmark or Spanish in Panama, she would try to relate the foreign words to things with which she was familiar.
“We moved around, and I was always being introduced to new things,” she said. “And this isn’t that different.
“It was scary, to always have to go to a new place and new everything,” said Connelly, who has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Canada, as does her husband, an orthodontist.
Wherever they lived, her parents instilled the importance of education, she said. They might have been surprised by her choices, but they were supportive nonetheless. She said her mother always told her, “Your education is something that can never be taken away from you.”
When Connelly was considering what she might want to be when she grew up, her father suggested becoming a writer, because she had won a few awards in high school, but she preferred the sciences with reassuring facts that were either right or wrong, she said.
Connelly admitted she “fell into medicine.”
She graduated from McGill University with undergraduate and medical degrees, but she never pursued a specialty and has never practiced. Instead, she found something different that she’s passionate about.
It happened when she answered a newspaper ad for an instructor at a Richmond community college and she fell in love with teaching.
“I have found this is my creative outlet,” Connelly said. “Teaching is my creativity and seeing things in a way that maybe others don’t.”
With some family members being artists, she talked recently about teaching as an art as a guest speaker at a December UVA Health town hall meeting.
“I think that’s what artists do—they create something they see in a certain way, and then they are able to allow others to see it the way they see it,” she said.
Now a mother herself, Connelly saw her son transfer into and graduate from UVA, and now her daughter is a Wahoo.
As the instructor of two biology courses, Connelly sees the nursing students every day, and she can’t help but feel motherly toward them, too, she said. She wants her students to know they can count on her should they need something.
“I’ve taken students to the airport. I’ve taken students to the bank, because they weren’t being treated well. I’ve told them, if you have to go to the hospital …’’ she said. “Some of them are far from home, and their parents wouldn’t be able to get here. I understand.”
Abousy said she thinks Connelly has found the right balance in being a teacher—being there for students and guiding them—and being a “unique and special” person.
“Yes, she’s motherly, but I could also talk with her as a professor, because we developed a relationship with trust,” Abousy said. “I could talk to her about anything. She’s so understanding and reasonable, I could feel vulnerable, and feel safe and comfortable.”
At UVA, Connelly started teaching in the biology department, where the anatomy and physiology lecture course enrolled about 300 students from across Grounds. When the Nursing School wanted its students to have a smaller class, she switched to that school 10 years ago.
She is glad the microbiology course has a mix of students, however, so these future professionals encounter each other on the same level.
“I like it that you have a first-year nursing student sitting next to a fourth-year premed student and they’re getting to know each other before they’re a team in the hospital environment. There can already be this respect for each other,” she said.
Connelly—called “Dr. C” by many of her students—tells her students learning is never a waste of time. She has also learned to disregard people’s sometimes blunt bias in comparing a physician and a teacher, including the salary differential.
“I have been asked, ‘You went through all that education, and you don’t even practice medicine? Isn’t that a waste?’” she said. “But I have all of these students who will be practicing, so it’s not like my knowledge was a waste. It’s going to them.”