The Hirshfields keep it in the family

If you attended Dr. Irvin Hirshfield’s Microbiology class on Dec. 5, 2002, you would have been somewhat confused. Hirshfield came into the class with a young lady and said: “I present to you Dr. Hirshfield.”

He meant his daughter, Sabrina Hirshfield. The whole class erupted in laughter from this introduction.

Irvin has been teaching at the Department of Biological Sciences at St. John’s University for 25 years. He conducts research in microbiology and is also affiliated with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However busy his schedule is, he always finds the time to speak to his students.

His method of teaching is more than just traditional. He tries to combine a variety of ways to present the course material and involve the students in active learning, not just in the lab, but also in the lecture class.

“Bringing his daughter in to give a lecture was a great idea,” said Kimberly Howell, a junior biology major in Irvin’s class. “I think she gave a very detailed presentation. It sure held my attention.”

Irvin was the one to come up with the idea, thinking that Sabrina’s specialization in epidemiology (the study of the occurrence, determinants and distribution of diseases and their causes through a human population) would be beneficial to the students.

“I thought it would also be a good experience for her because she has an interest in teaching,” Irvin said. “She was a little nervous the first time, but I was able to give her an idea of what to expect. Her lecture has evolved with experience, and I think that this past semester was the best for her and the class as a team, in discussing the epidemiology of AIDS, and the biology of the disease.”

Sabrina’s lecture was principally focused on AIDS and HIV. Her job with the Medical and Health Research Associates, a non-profit organization linked to the Department of Health, involves research in sociological issues. Since AIDS is a biological and sociological disease, this lecture was right up her alley. Also, it is no coincidence that she has an MA in Sociology from St. John’s (she graduated in 1995). She is upholding a legacy at St. John’s of past students coming back to teach.

“She comes in for one lecture per semester, and we’ve been doing this since the fall of 2001, when she had completed her doctoral studies at Columbia University in Sociomedical Sciences,” said Irvin.

Even though she did not follow her father’s exact footsteps, this apple did not fall far from the tree. Sabrina presented the class with a great deal of information supplementing the regular lectures and reading materials.

“When I teach in his class, he discusses the topic [HIV] on a molecular level and I discuss it on a public health [epidemiologic] level. In this way, students can understand the molecular underpinnings of HIV, as well as its relevance to public health professionals and the community,” said Sabrina.

She spoke about how AIDS and HIV progress through time in certain countries, who gets the disease more and how it is tracked and the leading drugs used for treatment, like HAART (highly active anti retroviral therapy).

During this special lecture, Irvin did not just sit in the back of the class. He took an active role along with his students in asking questions and participating in the lecture.

“I really liked the way that they interacted with each other,” Howell said. “I saw respect on both sides.”

At the end of the class Irvin took the stage for a brief moment and tied in the information his daughter presented with the relevant aspects of what he had taught in previous classes. He also gave some more background information to help his students understand his daughter’s lecture better. Sabrina also asked questions of what her father presented, questions that other students might not have thought of asking, to help them integrate all the information together.

“It is a great honor to teach with my dad, especially because it makes him so happy,” Sabrina said.

Irvin said that he really likes working with his daughter. “If the opportunity presents itself, I’m certain we could do more than the one class a semester we teach together. We both have an interest in public health issues, but from different perspectives.”