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Mary Petzke, Ph.D., Fulfills Her Lifelong Dream of Teaching

A close bond with a childhood teacher inspired Dr. Petzke to pursue her dream of becoming an educator.

February 07, 2022
Mary Petzke, Ph.D

Dr. Petzke was born in a rural town in Wisconsin. Her family relocated to central California for ten years because of her father’s job as a forest ranger before eventually returning to her small hometown. During her second stint in Wisconsin, Dr. Petzke initially struggled as the new kid in class and it was the help of her fourth-grade teacher that helped her settle. “She took me under her wing,” Dr. Petzke said.

Looking back, it was the extra effort put forth by her teacher that showed her the potential effect an educator can have on a student’s life. “I’ve seen the role [teachers] play in students’ lives, beyond educating and dispensing information. I think that was a turning point for me,” she said. Dr. Petzke pursued her dream of teaching beginning with practicing being a teacher for her three younger sisters, even creating lesson plans for each of them.

When it came time to explore undergraduate studies, Dr. Petzke wanted to make quite the leap—all the way to the East Coast. “Something called me out here. I enjoyed that there was diversity, people from different backgrounds,” she said. Dr. Petzke eventually decided on Boston University, where she switched her major from physics to biology after a search for a work study job led her to a listing for a position at an on-campus lab that grew archaebacteria. She was intrigued by how this bacterium was able to grow in highly acidic, near-boiling media. “I was fascinated by the fact that life could thrive under such conditions,” Dr. Petzke said.

She built on her fascination with sciences, earning her Ph.D. in Medical Science from Brown University in 1995, followed by positions as a post-doctoral research associate at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Harvard Medical School from 1996 to 2000. Dr. Petzke spent a few years in industry before taking time off to have her second child. Being out of the work force and research affected her mightily. “It felt like something had been amputated,” she said. After her husband saw a listing for a post-doctoral research position at New York Medical College (NYMC), she applied and sure enough, she landed the job. “It felt like I was breathing oxygen again,” Dr. Petzke said.

In 2010, she became a NYMC faculty member, being both excited and nervous about it. “It was extremely intimidating,” Dr. Petzke said about teaching the second-year Medical Microbiology course. “I was shaking [during my first class].”

It did not take long for Dr. Petzke to hit her stride; she began enjoying teaching as much as she always thought she would. Her interactions with students provide her with fresh perspectives on her research, which surrounds bacterial pathogens with a focus on the bacterial agent of Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi. “Students are always thinking outside the box. There are times I would not have found certain things [in my research] without that stimulus from our interactions,” she said.

A long way from making lesson plans for her siblings, she still has the same passion for teaching. “I love taking a student who is hesitant and showing them that they are capable and seeing their newfound confidence,” she said.

Twelve years later, Dr. Petzke is now an associate professor and assistant dean of medical student research, appointments that signify that she has excelled in her teaching and research. Dr. Petzke takes great pride in her role as faculty advisor for the annual Medical Student Research Forum (MSRF), which is an opportunity for medical students to present and share their findings with the College community. Since 2013, Dr. Petzke says she has seen an exponential increase in participation, culminating with a record number of presentations in the 2022 MSRF with 105.

“[The students on the E-board] successfully accommodated the expanding numbers of participants and even pivoted to an online platform last year and again this year, all while making it look effortless,” Dr. Petzke said.

“The students’ meticulous organization, strong teamwork and adaptability means that I have little to do aside from offering occasional advice and ordering the plaque for the keynote speaker.” Dr. Petzke said. “They take full ownership of this event; it is their show and they take it to a new level each year. I could not be prouder.”