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A Class Act

Jeanette Norden’s retirement leaves a void that will be difficult to fill


By Carole Bartoo
August 2013

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The retirement of Jeanette Norden, Ph.D., professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, after more than 40 years, will mark the passing of an era.


Norden, the course director of Neurosciences/ Neuroanatomy (renamed Brain and Behavior) at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, is commonly cited as one of the school’s most effective and influential educators. School administrators and students alike say her departure will be a significant loss.

“Jeanette has been an exemplar for all of our faculty members who strive for excellence in their teaching. She has been ultimately concerned with the welfare of our students and their future patients,” said Bonnie Miller, M.D., senior associate dean for Health Sciences Education.

Norden, who also serves as academic adviser for second-year students, was selected three times for the Shovel Award, given by members of the fourth-year class to a faculty member who has had a positive and meaningful influence on their lives and education. She received numerous other teaching awards at Vanderbilt, including: the Jack Davies Award for Teaching Excellence in the Basic Sciences (which she won eight times), and the Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award (four times). In 2011 the Vanderbilt Brain Institute and Center for Neuroscience at Vanderbilt established an annual Jeanette J. Norden Outreach Lectureship in her honor.

“When she teaches, there is a sense that she has a lot of people that matter to her and she encourages us to have meaningful relationships. She commonly brings patients to class as part of the teaching, and then she has us all write thank you notes afterward. Whenever I have to present or teach I think about how she would do it and try to model after her,” said Billy Sullivan, M.D., a member of the class of 2013.

Scott Rodgers, M.D., ‘94, was taught by Norden and recalls she always taught her class without aid of PowerPoint presentations or electronics of any sort, and that is part of her success.

“She loves to tell stories about patients and is one of the few people with the natural teaching talent to engage people for a four-hour block. But more than that, she wants students to maintain a level of compassion. She is one of those stabilizing forces who understands students came here because they want to connect with patients,” said Rodgers, associate dean for Medical Student Affairs.

Derek Riebau, M.D., who has taught with Norden for the last nine years, calls her the most dedicated and effective teacher he has known.

“It has been an absolute privilege and honor to work with her and learn from her. Her love of the students and their future patients is unmatched. She never rests on her laurels or accomplishments as a recognized teacher of excellence, but continuously critiques her own material and lecture content to make sure that the next lecture she gives is more relevant and informative than the last. She works tirelessly to offer the best opportunities for her students to learn because she has a genuine recognition that their future patients’ lives and well-beings are at stake,” Riebau said.

Norden was awarded the John Chapman Award for Transformative Innovations in Medical Education in 2010, and in 2012 the Arnold P. Gold Foundation Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award given to a faculty member judged to be exemplary in their compassion and sensitivity and for exhibiting the highest standard of humanism in medicine.

Norden said as an educator, she has always tried to keep her focus on the students and feels it has been an honor to teach them about the brain and about how to apply their knowledge to the diagnosis and treatment of patients who suffer from neurological disease.

“I have cared for and loved the students. This is what has guided my teaching. I have also tried to model by my relationship with them, as the kind of relationship I want them to have with their patients. I shall miss teaching them about the most awesome structure in the human body.” 

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