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Jennifer Mathews '95
From Student to Educator
After graduating from SUNY Potsdam more than 20 years ago, alumna Dr. Jennifer Mathews ’95 is back in a SUNY Potsdam classroom, this time as a guest lecturer. She speaks to a group of undergraduate students about opioids and opioid addiction. “I’m a neuropharmacologist,” she says, “I study the brain.” As she flips through slides in her PowerPoint presentation, she discusses opioids and the ways in which opioid receptors work in the brain. Mathews has been teaching at a at St. John Fisher College as a professor of pharmacology for the past 10 years.
“I feel like my foundation here (SUNY Potsdam) allowed me to be broadly trained,” she said. After graduating from SUNY Potsdam with a degree in biology in 1995, she went on to receive two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. In 2007 she started working as a professor at St. John Fisher College, where she has been teaching pharmacology ever since.
She entered the school at an interesting time. The pharmacology program was just getting started. “I was one of the first four science faculty hired into the program, so we were laying the foundation for the entire program,” she said. As a bench scientist, her research took place in a laboratory, but that changed when she started working in the Wegmans School of Pharmacy at St. John Fisher College. It was brand new school, without any labs, so the first few years were spent just designing the new laboratories. “To stay current and to continue to do research, I couldn’t really be a bench scientist anymore, so I transitioned to doing more of the scholarship of teaching and learning,” she said.
Her research began focusing on social issues in health care. She started looking at health care disparities in deaf patients. Mathews said that Rochester has “a really large deaf population, so it was giving students exposure to what it’s going to mean when you have a deaf patient who comes into your pharmacy. How are you going to communicate, how are you going to interact with that patient, how are going to make sure they understand what you’re saying to them?”
She saw this as an important topic for health care practitioners and made it a priority in her curriculum. A pitfall for health care providers is to think that deaf patients can communicate by writing in English, but for patients who were born deaf, American Sign Language (ASL) is their primary language; English is a second language for them.
Her research and teaching also focused on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community, another group with a strong presence in Rochester. “One of things that happens a lot with the LGBT community is they just completely disengage from healthcare because they’ve had a terrible interaction,” Mathews said.
Her classes teach students to provide quality, patient-centered care to members of the LGBT community and examine the unique needs of transgender patients. From a pharmacology standpoint, properly communicating with transgender patients is extremely important because of potential complications related to hormone therapy. In Mathews’ diversity class, students have the opportunity to interact with transgender patients as part of a panel discussion where they can ask questions and discuss health care needs in a safe learning environment.
Mathews’ research, which has been focused on the scholarship of teaching and learning in the classroom, has led to her being recognized as Teacher of the Year in 2008 and 2014 and Advisor of the Year in 2013 and 2014 at St. John Fisher College. It is evident from her numerous accolades that Mathews knows how to connect with students. They are engaged and eager to learn under her tutelage.
It’s relationships like these that had an impact on Mathews when she was a student at SUNY Potsdam. She said her professors knew her life story and they were interested in what she was doing. “Those were all the reasons that I went to Fisher (St. John Fisher College) because I wanted to have that same relationship with my students, I wanted to get to know them and interact with them,” she said.
One story still stands out in her mind after twenty years, she remembers former SUNY Potsdam President William Merwin attending her graduation party, “where does that happen?” she said. It’s SUNY Potsdam’s close-knit community that really appealed to her and she chose to work at St. John Fisher College because it reminded her of SUNY Potsdam.
She encourages students to find a really great mentor. “Take advantage of the community that’s being created here (SUNY Potsdam). I have such fond memories and such a warm place in my heart for Potsdam,” Mathews said.