Dr. Neil Chilton (PhD) became fascinated with biology as a child growing up in Australia, where he collected crabs on the beach and watched birds in the forest.
That early interest in living things led him to study biology at the University of Adelaide. He received a Bachelor of Science degree there in 1981, before going on to earn a Bachelor of Science (honours) degree and a PhD at Flinders University in 1982 and 1991, respectively.
Once his degrees were completed, Chilton embarked on a rewarding career as a researcher at the University of Melbourne. However, despite his positive work experiences in Australia, one of his dreams remained unfulfilled: to teach undergraduate students in a classroom setting.
“I’ve always had this passion for passing on the knowledge I have to others,” he said.
It was this desire to teach that prompted Chilton to apply for a job at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), where he joined the Department of Biology in the College of Arts and Science as an associate professor in 2003.
“I wanted that challenge, and it was something I believed I was good at,” he said. “Something was missing, and it was the desire to teach in biology.”
Chilton has now been a biology instructor at USask for two decades and has been lauded for his teaching abilities by students and colleagues alike. For example, he earned the College of Arts and Science Teaching Excellence Award during the 2011/12 academic year, followed by the Provost’s College Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2012/13. In addition, he has twice received the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union (USSU) Teaching Excellence Award, in 2015/16 and 2022/23, as well as seven other USSU Teaching Excellence Award nominations for various courses.
“To make a difference in the lives of students—I think that’s the key,” he said.
Now—after 20 years at USask, including teaching 10 undergraduate courses and five graduate courses in biology—Chilton will be honoured with the university’s top teaching prize: the USask Distinguished Teacher Award. This honour will be bestowed upon him by Professor Airini, USask’s provost and vice-president academic, during Fall Convocation on Nov. 8, 2023.
The Distinguished Teacher Award (formerly named the Master Teacher Award) recognizes faculty members who make outstanding contributions to the learning and working environments of the University of Saskatchewan and emphasizes the importance of good teaching at the university.
“I would like to extend my congratulations to Dr. Neil Chilton on receiving the Distinguished Teacher Award,” said Airini. “I am so grateful for the vitally important work that Professor Chilton undertakes each day in support of USask’s teaching and learning mission. Our University Plan 2025 includes the bold ambition to be a university that sets the standard for learning. Professor Chilton is inspiring our campus community through his commitment to foster USask learners who have the passion, respect, and creativity to be leaders today and into the future.”
For Chilton, the best part of teaching is helping students succeed. He is passionate about engaging learners in his courses and seeing their excitement build for the course material. He starts his undergraduate lectures with what one of his students has described as “an attention grabber”—often a captivating video or a short film—to immediately pique the students’ interest and encourage discussion.
Chilton notes that in his large first-year biology courses—which can have up to 500 students—there is much diversity among the learners. He welcomes the challenge of engaging and interacting with students who may have differing levels of familiarity with biology or who are enrolled in a variety of USask academic programs, including in the humanities, fine arts, social sciences, and agriculture. During the first lecture of each large undergraduate course, Chilton presents the material from various parts of the room—including the back of the classroom—to ensure students sitting throughout the lecture hall are fully participating and answering questions.
“The first lecture is to basically try and grab their attention—so they’ll be there for the second one to see what happens,” he said.
Chilton’s teaching objectives are to have a positive impact on his students, demonstrate his passion for the subject matter, and gain his students’ respect. Student evaluations at the end of his courses show he is accomplishing these goals; students have commented on how Chilton goes above and beyond during each lecture and includes funny jokes and memes to encourage student engagement. Students have also acknowledged Chilton’s enthusiasm for the course material, which sparks their own interest and inspires them to learn.
Chilton is continually evolving his teaching methodologies, which include modifying lecture content in response to students’ interests and employing a class response system, case-based learning, research-based experiential learning, and peer teaching. This multi-pronged approach is serving Chilton and his students well, as evidenced by student feedback.
“I remember one of my student comments was, ‘I’m just glad to get up in the morning and go to Dr. Chilton’s class,’ ” he said.
Chilton is grateful for the support he has received from his USask colleagues, including Professor Emeritus, Dr. Vipen Sawhney (PhD), and the late Professor Emeritus, Dr. Larry Fowke (PhD), as well as the resources he has accessed over the years from the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning. The mission of the Gwenna Moss Centre is to aid USask educators and leaders to set the standard in learning by offering intentionally designed, supportive, and excellent learning experiences.
Dr. Christopher Todd (PhD), head of the Department of Biology, describes Chilton as “the type of educator who is unafraid to encounter a new idea, research it himself or talk it through with colleagues, and then apply it to his classes to see if it improves student understanding, engagement, or satisfaction.”
“The fact that 97 per cent of students who take Biology 121 or 436 are satisfied with their experience with Dr. Chilton is not an accident,” said Todd. “Dr. Chilton is a lifelong learner and his focus on improving his students’ experience is constant. He is an excellent model of a teacher-scholar, bringing his research into the classroom, generating enthusiasm, and then helping students develop their own research questions to explore as part of an undergraduate research experience.”
In addition to excellence in teaching, Chilton—a celebrated expert in the field of parasitology—has also been recognized at USask for excellence in research. In 2018, the College of Arts and Science honoured him with a Distinguished Research Award, which celebrates highly accomplished researchers who received their highest degree more than 10 years ago.
Chilton’s work on parasites—such as ticks and fleas, and the bacteria (pathogenic and endosymbiotic) they carry—is important to animal and human health. His research has helped determine the movement and size of parasite populations amid a changing climate, leading to new strategies for assessing and controlling the risk posed by parasites. He has also developed new detection and diagnostic tools to screen parasites for harmful bacteria. In 2017, the University of Melbourne awarded Chilton a Doctor of Agricultural Sciences degree (Honoris causa). The degree is the highest honour that the University of Melbourne can bestow on an individual.