When Dr. Suzanne Cardona left the University of Alabama at Birmingham 10 years ago, it was for her dream job teaching here.
Cardona ’99 had passed up the opportunity of realizing that dream once before, when Dr. Gary Goss called her with news of a job opening as she was preparing to deliver her first child. But some nine months later, he called again to say he hadn’t found the right person to fill the spot. Would she be interested?
“It was my pie in the sky dream that I could come back and teach,” said Cardona, associate professor of biology. “God got me here anyway. He made it happen.”
Cardona recently completed her tenth year of teaching at PBA, an accomplishment accentuated by winning the Charles & Hazel Corts Award for Outstanding Teaching. She is the third PBA graduate to win the award for University faculty. She joins 2016 winner Pam Sigafoose ’93 M.S. ’96, assistant professor of education in the Catherine T. MacArthur School of Leadership, and 2009 winner Dr. Thomas J. St. Antoine ’93, director of the Frederick M. Supper Honors Program. Dr. Paul R. Corts and his wife Diane established an endowment fund to provide the award in honor of his parents and in recognition of their commitment to higher education.
Provost and Chief Academic Officer Dr. E. Randolph Richards surprised Cardona by naming her the award recipient in front of her colleagues and students at a special honors chapel last month.
“It was shocking. It was incredibly humbling, and I was so honored,” Cardona said. “It’s almost hard to put into words.”
In introducing Cardona, Richards highlighted feedback from her students: “If you’re willing to work hard, this professor is willing to work hard with you every step of the way.” Students said she makes herself available to provide extra help in her welcoming office and even makes breakfast for them on exam days.
Moreover, she keeps Christ at the center of the curriculum. While “a lot of the integration is me just being who I am in Christ” by showing her students His love and praying with them, she also prompts them to consider ethical and faith questions related to designer babies, contraception and three-parent babies. Sometimes she will ask students to write devotionals about the subject matter.
Cardona dreamed of teaching at PBA because of the profound impact the faculty had on her when she was an undergraduate student from 1995 to 1999.
“I was so well-prepared by the Supper Honors Program and the science faculty,” she said. “I knew I wanted to come back and be a part of that tradition of training students for their next steps.”
Cardona went on to earn her doctoral degree in cell and molecular physiology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. After finishing her doctorate, she was a postdoctoral associate in the Vision Science Research Center of University of Alabama at Birmingham, where her research focused on the biochemical characterization of mutations in the dim-light photoreceptor that leads to blinding diseases. She served as co-director of the Industry Roundtable at UAB that showcased traditional and non-traditional career opportunities for scientists.
At PBA, she trained two students in molecular techniques to replicate two mutations that cause the blinding disease retinitis pigmentosa. She has also helped Grassy Waters Preserve collect invasive apple snails to see if the critters harbor any bacteria that are pathogenic to humans and that could enter the water supply.
But she is most joyful when she describes connecting with her students on a more personal level. About those breakfasts on exam days? Cardona tries to make homemade treats — banana bread and breakfast casseroles, for example — because she knows many of her students are away from home for the first time and haven’t had home cooking in a while.
She and her husband will host her “kids” at their Palm Springs home, where they enjoy chili and s’mores. It gives them an opportunity to see that Cardona is “actually a full human being and not just a professor.” The couple has two children, a 10-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter.
She has kept in touch with students and mentored them outside of the classroom. Draped on the bookshelves in her office are the commencement stoles of two students that she supported as they experienced broken relationships with their mothers.
“It was my honor and privilege to fill that role for them,” Cardona said. “I love my kids. It doesn’t matter whether they’re 25 or not. I tell them that.”
Photo 1: Dr. Suzanne Cardona, associate professor of biology, poses for a photo in the lab on Thursday, May 9, 2019. Cardona is the 2019 recipient of the Charles & Hazel Corts Award for Outstanding Teaching.
Photo 2: Dr. Suzanne Cardona poses for a photo with Provost and Chief Academic Officer Dr. E. Randolph Richards after he named her as the recipient of the Charles & Hazel Corts Award for Outstanding Teaching.