Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Professor has a taste of academic success

John Kinnamon accepting award

Professor John Kinnamon received the United Methodist Church University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award at DU's Convocation in October. Also pictured are Chancellor Robert Coombe, left, and Faculty Senate President Michael Levine-Clark.

Not only does John Kinnamon have good taste — he has a passion for it.

A neuroscientist and professor in DU’s Department of Biological Sciences, Kinnamon  received the United Methodist Church University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award at DU’s Convocation in October 2009.

Kinnamon is a pioneer in the study of taste buds. Last year, he received a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to learn more about the basic mechanisms of how taste works — including studying the synapses between taste receptor cells and the brain.

 “A lot of work on the five senses has centered on four of them: sight, smell, hearing and touch,” Kinnamon says. “But not a lot of research has been done on the sense of taste.”

Kinnamon says each taste bud is like a mini-brain that provides information about the taste of the food being eaten whether it’s sour, salty, bitter, sweet, and whether or not the food is palatable.

But his tastes go beyond buds; he also teaches a popular DU First-Year Seminar called Biology of Science Fiction. What does this have to do with taste?

“Not a lot,” Kinnamon says. “I am a science fiction junkie, and biology is the fodder of a lot of sci-fi literature and movies.” 

He says a majority of science fiction is written about genetic engineering, aliens, physics of time travel and artificial intelligence. Students in Kinnamon’s class analyze sci-fi books from a biological perspective. They even have to create a story about an alien — describing the biology of how its body functions and brain works.

“As an academic, I continually try to balance my efforts between teaching and research,” Kinnamon says. “Getting a grant application funded is a great career event, but the real rewards come from teaching. Occasionally we get a pat on the back for our efforts, but we really live for the times when a student who graduated years before calls to say how taking one of my courses or working in my laboratory changed the direction of their career. These are the most gratifying moments for me and are remembered forever. Now, to have the United Methodist Church honor me with the University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award makes me feel appreciated in a way I have not experienced before,” he says. “Being recognized for doing what you love is like having your cake and eating it, too.”  

And tasting it.

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