Jeff Taylor likes a challenge.
As an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Taylor flunked his first three chemistry exams, not terribly surprising for an English major who had no chemistry at Mountain View High School.
So what did Taylor do?
He changed his major from English to chemistry. “English was boring,” says Taylor. “I was good at it, but I wanted a challenge.”
Three years later, Taylor showed so much promise in his chosen field that he became a lecturer on the UALR chemistry faculty while still an undergraduate, teaching a laboratory class before earning his degree. Taylor was the instructor of record, left completely on his own to sink or swim, teaching students his age or older. “They had to create a position for me,” he remembers. “They couldn’t call me an instructor because I didn’t have a degree, so they made up a title for me. They called me a lecturer.”
Today, Taylor is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Arkansas at Monticello specializing in biochemistry. He is also the 2015 recipient of the Hornaday Outstanding Faculty Award, presented annually to UAM’s outstanding faculty member.
“This award isn’t for me personally,” he says. “It’s really for the entire faculty in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences. I think it speaks to the success our graduates have had and to the overall quality of the academic program.”
Taylor graduated magna cum laude from UALR in 1984, earned a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1987 and a Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1992 before completing a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1994.
He was an adjunct assistant professor of chemistry at Lyon College in Batesville in 1994-95 before joining the faculty at the University of Louisiana-Monroe as an assistant professor of chemistry.
Taylor was hired at UAM in 2006 and immediately identified with his students. “I worked my way through college,” he says. “ I relate to these kids that are not financially advantaged. I worked full time and went to school full time and completed my degree in four years.”
Taylor acquired his work ethic at a young age. His father owned an auto parts store in Mountain View and put a broom in his hand by the time he was five years old. At UALR Taylor had a federal college work-study job in the biology stock room, was a lab assistant and worked at a restaurant after hours during the school year. His summers were spent working at auto parts stores in Little Rock. “My first day in the biology stock room, they brought me 500 jars of nasty, maggot-growing fruit flies for me to clean,” he remembers, laughing. “After I finished, I washed my hands and went to work in a pizza restaurant.”
At UAM, Taylor has taught as many as 13 different classes but his primary focus is biochemistry, organic chemistry, and their corresponding labs. He also teaches pharmacology and advanced laboratory techniques and engages his students in research when he has time.
“I used to think I was the best chemistry teacher on the faculty,” says Dr. Morris Bramlett, dean of the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences. “Since Jeff got here, I strive to be the second best.”
“Jeff is the best thing to happen to our biology program in the last 10 years,” adds Dr. John Hunt, a professor of biology and last year’s Hornaday Award winner. “His expertise in biochemistry has been a huge benefit to our biology program.”
Taylor didn’t know he wanted to be a biochemist until he took his first biochemistry class and found out what a challenge it was. “It’s the things that have really challenged me that I’ve pursued,” he says. “It’s the same as working on cars. The work is not fun. It’s the accomplishment of overcoming a challenge. It’s the same way with research. Nothing ever works in research. You deal with failure over and over until you figure out how to make it work.”
Taylor doesn’t view himself as a teacher only in the classroom. To him, a teacher is a teacher regardless of the setting. “I don’t define myself by my career,” he says. “I get just as much enjoyment teaching one of my friends to repair something on their vehicle – how to adjust a set of points or brake drums. I enjoy teaching people to do anything. A person who’s a natural-born teacher just wants to share what they know if someone is willing to learn. If they’re willing, I’m willing to share.”
And that’s why Taylor is the 2015 Hornaday Award winner.