banner by Sarah Burns

Professor Spotlight: Dr. Bill Yates

by Jill McDonnell

In the hidden back offices of the UPMC Eye & Ear Institute, down a system of twisting and turning hallways, sits one of Pitt’s most respected science professors. He is busy preparing lectures for undergraduates and medical students, running his own research lab, editing or writing papers for top science journals.

Dr. Bill Yates’ passion for the brain started at a young age. He earned both his Bachelor’s and Doctorate degrees in neuroscience from the University of Florida, a school he chose for its pioneering programs in the field. Soon after, Yates caught the eye of the University of Pittsburgh for his research on the vestibular-autonomic interaction, examining how the inner ear affects blood pressure and motion sickness.

He began his teaching career at Pitt in 1994, taking over the Functional Neuroanatomy class. In 1998, Dr. Alan Sved, a current professor and Neuroscience Department Chair, approached Yates with the idea of creating an Honors Human Physiology class. Students taking regular Human Physiology wanted to go more in depth on topics and sought more of a challenge, so Yates and Sved decided to offer a class akin to a medical school course. Ever since, Honors Human Physiology has been offered every year, lately only in the fall semester.

The course is an extremely unique opportunity for undergraduates, who may enroll after fulfilling the pre-requisites of biology and general chemistry. Learning the same material as second-year medical students, undergraduates report to a lecture hall in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine (UPSOM) and participate in Problem Based Learning (PBL), group scenarios that have been used to successfully train medical students for years. Yates estimates that the honors course covers double, if not triple, the amount of material as the regular Human Physiology class.

Yet, with great effort comes great reward. Yates says that the course “provides superior preparation for medical school and taking the MCAT.” Countless students and faculty have had high praise for Yates and his signature course. “Most students really enjoy it,” says Yates. “It stimulates thinking and forces students to develop new study strategies. They have to integrate concepts in a way they never had to before.” Pre-health advisor Andrea Abt notices how students respond to Yates’ passion for teaching: “I always gauged the desirability of classes by the length of the wait list – Dr. Yates’ course always had a long wait list.” Furthermore, medical and other professional schools value a student’s thirst for knowledge and success in such a high-level course.

After working at the undergraduate level for many years, UPSOM recruited Yates in 2010 to teach the cardiology block of its curriculum. In 2015, he began doing the neuroscience lectures, as well. This year, Yates became Vice Chair of the Curriculum Committee, and helps to plan Pitt’s entire medical school curriculum. Although not a physician himself, Yates noted that it is “interesting thinking about training doctors.” In medical school, students spend the first two years in class and the last two in clinical rotations. Yates emphasizes the importance of setting up a good lecture curriculum: he notices that medical students who lack a solid foundation of anatomy and physiology tend to be less successful in clinic.

When he is not teaching medical students or undergraduates, Yates is busy doing several things for both Pitt and science institutions around the country. He is the Co-Director of Pitt’s Research Conduct and Compliance Office, which handles regulation of research across the entire campus. For example, the office oversees animal experiment protocols and the International Review Board (IRB) for research involving humans. In addition, Yates is the Editor-in-Chief for the extremely prestigious Journal of Neurophysiology. He has also personally authored over 120 peer-reviewed research papers.

When asked about hobbies or free time, Yates simply states that he enjoys working. “I enjoy everything I do — it’s a nice blending of things. I like managing things to make sure they work appropriately.” When asked for a fun personal fact, Yates’ hardworking demeanor showed through: “I’m teaching 22 lectures this semester.” In fact, medical students spend more hours in the first two years with him than with any other professor.

Yates loves teaching for the challenge of “creatively explaining things to people.” He notes the need for different strategies in teaching undergraduates and medical students. He likes the extra freedom of an undergraduate course compared to a medical one, but he says medical students are growing on him.

Regardless of which learning environment he prefers, one thing is for certain: Dr. Bill Yates creates a special environment for the training of future health care professionals. His dedication to teaching has helped Pitt become a leading university for health sciences, and he has definitely left his legacy.