For the Love of Teaching
For the Love of Teaching

By any measure, Naser Zaki Alsharif, PhD’92, PharmD, has amassed an impressive career. With decades of research, dozens of publications and presentations – and his fair share of awards – the longtime Creighton professor has established an impressive and far-reaching scholarly legacy.

Yet, it’s his work in the classroom that he speaks of with the greatest fervor.

“I love to teach,” Alsharif says.

This from a man who, as a young academic and budding toxicologist, got his start when he took a position at Creighton University – the place he’d earned his doctorate a year prior – teaching medicinal chemistry. A science course that “was not my area of expertise, a course that I dreaded when I was a pharmacy student and a course that has a reputation among students that it’s not relevant,” he says with a chuckle.

A Revelation

At the completion of his first semester of teaching, he wasn’t sure the profession quite suited him. Student evaluations had come in. Some were scathing, he says, and “tough to swallow.” A colleague and mentor, Victoria Roche, PhD, counseled him not to take the bad reviews to heart. But he did.

Near the end of his second semester, while his students were toiling over their final exams, an idea came to him that he quickly scribbled down. That idea: structurally based therapeutic evaluation (SBTE) – essentially, the integration of interdisciplinary content, including drug structure, into therapeutic decision-making  to help students see how the science and practice of pharmacy come together, cultivating “big picture” thinking.

“How did that come about? I don’t have a clue,” Alsharif says, letting loose another laugh. “But, it’s part of that struggle, in terms of how can I relate to my students better. I felt I had an ethical, moral responsibility. I thought, ‘If I want to teach (medicinal chemistry), I’d better find a way to really teach it in a way that the students relate to, and something that I believe in.’”

Several studies and papers later, he had established an instructional model on how to implement SBTE in the classroom.

What came as a revelation on Creighton’s campus more than 20 years ago has gone on to change everything – for Alsharif and his future students, as well as for pharmacy education on the international stage. Structurally based therapeutic evaluation has taken root across the globe, from Latin America all the way to the Far East.

Lessons Learned

Back at Creighton, Alsharif would encounter more revelations and lessons that would help solidify his love of teaching.

One such lesson involved stoking students’ discomfort to fuel their understanding.

“When you challenge students to the extent that it’s uncomfortable,” he explains, “they’re still willing to voice their opinion, reflect, and provide you with an insight that shows that they’re meeting that challenge.”

Another lesson: Surface perceptions can be misleading. Alsharif once taught a student who was, he and other faculty members feared, “a lost hope.” He wasn’t outgoing; he seemed ambivalent. He was well-liked, and funny, but it didn’t seem that his head or his heart were in pharmacy.

As it turns out, Alsharif and his colleagues had sized up the student incorrectly. “He surprised us all,” he says.

Despite appearances, the student completed his PharmD and followed that feat by earning a medical degree. Then, an invitation arrived to attend his graduation from the University of Iowa, where he’d just finished his doctorate. Alsharif and a colleague drove in to attend the ceremony.

“We couldn’t be prouder,” he says. “We regretted any doubt we had about him. It was a good message: to never, ever give up on any student, regardless of whether they go through a stage where they’re not showing their full potential. Maybe he was the more introverted and reflective type, and he was absorbing everything around him.

“All students have a potential to achieve and exceed any expectations we may have,” he says. “Never give up on the human spirit and the ability to excel, even though appearances might tell you different.”

Cultural Healing

Human understanding and acceptance live at the core of another of the Palestinian-born Alsharif’s passions – cultural competency for health care professionals. He teaches a course in it, and he’s conducted research on factors that influence health and healing practices for the Muslim patient, and on provider bias and health care disparities, presenting numerous times on his research locally, nationally and internationally.

His interest in cultural accord reaches beyond the realm of health care. A longstanding advocate for Palestinian-American and Muslim-American issues, he has served on various civic organizations to promote understanding and acceptance among people and has presented on the subject many times over the course of more than 25 years.

Balancing Act

Of Creighton – his home base for nearly all of those 25 years – Alsharif says there is a harmonious mixture present on campus.

“There is a balance here, of teaching, research and service,” he says. “The expectations are that you perform in all these areas. I think that is a strength for all of us here at Creighton.”

“From my perspective, that has been really helpful, because it allowed me to look at ways to excel in the classroom; look at ways to excel in terms of the research and to serve my profession and the community at large. Especially when I started teaching and throughout my career, it helped me to continuously challenge myself to make my teaching much, much better.”

Naser Zaki Alsharif, a professor in the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions since 1994, is the originator of the structurally based therapeutic evaluation concept in teaching medicinal chemistry. Alsharif was chosen for the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) Innovations in Teaching Award Competition in 2000 and 2006. He received the Creighton University Distinguished Educator in Teaching as Scholarship in 2014, and was named the 2016 AACP Distinguished Teaching Scholar.