At the University of Louisville in Kentucky, a student approached then-professor James Porter and said, “You must be a Christian.” This surprised Porter; he never talked about his religion in the public education sphere. The student continued, “I could tell by the way you act that you must be a Christian.”
That was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received,” Porter smiles. Knowing that his Kentucky-based students felt his Christlike love for them brings him joy.
After teaching at the University of Louisville for thirteen years and at BYU for twenty-four, Porter has left an indelible impact on thousands of students and fellow faculty. He doesn’t just love what he teaches; he loves who he teaches—and it’s this love for his students that’s prompting him to step away from his position as dean of the College of Life Sciences and move back into teaching for his last year at BYU.
Even during his busy tenure as dean, Porter continues to find time to teach a physiology class. He has taught physiology throughout his career, particularly with an emphasis on endocrinology. Each class usually has over a hundred students, creating a challenging environment to foster relationships. However, Porter still finds a way to connect with them.
Prior to administering each of the five exams Porter schedules for his classes, he offers additional office hours to help his students master the material. “Anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen come,” Porter says. “It’s a closer interaction, which I really enjoy. It’s more time-consuming, but it’s gratifying, especially if I see the students who came [to the help session] do well on the test.”
Emma Christiansen (ʼ23), one of Porter’s current students, talks about how much his office hours have helped her. “It’s not you against him; it’s you against the class material,” she says. “I feel very supported as a student.” As Porter talks with each student, he takes the time to learn their names and get to know their individual needs.
Not only is Porter inspiring his current students, but he has a trail of former students who appreciate how his influence shaped the direction of their studies. One particular BYU alumnus, James Dalgleish (ʼ15), remembers how Porter helped him gain a passion for medicine. “He made the human body really interesting. There were all these nifty facts that made you really love the subject,” Dalgleish says. “But more than that, I think he genuinely showed an interest in helping others. When I went to office hours, it was clear to me . . . that was the highlight of his day, where he got to help other people understand something.”
Porter’s individual-focused teaching style—a method he developed as a missionary in South Korea—has added value to his students’ educational experience. Teaching hundreds of students at once, however, is no simple task. Porter has experimented with a variety of styles—from packets to iClickers to PowerPoints—to help his students learn.
“[Porter] developed really great course materials and taught them in a way that was animated and interesting,” Dalgleish says. “He made the study of medicine interesting, which was very useful as I applied this knowledge to cancer research.” Dalgleish was recently a National Fulbright Scholarship semifinalist and will have the opportunity to continue conducting cancer research in the United Kingdom.
In addition to Porter’s attention to students, he is also known for his focus on faith and science. Whether it’s experimentation or revelation, having multiple origins for inspiration thrills Porter. “It’s actually invigorating . . . to know that there are other sources of knowledge,” he says. “I know that in my work, my research, and my teaching, the Spirit has been able to help me.”
Porter particularly enjoys taking an authentic approach to his beliefs: in his mind, you don’t have to choose sides to be a religious scientist. One can appreciate science while also being Christian, as the Kentucky student noticed all those years ago. “The things that really touched the students are seeing people who wear their faith on their sleeve, without being ostentatious, but just being so real,” he says.
This authenticity inspires the students and faculty members Porter works with. Acting as a dean over eight departments and units, Porter has found a way to unite students, faculty, and administrators as a harmonious team. Dixon Woodbury, a fellow physiology professor, comments that Porter helped smooth out rough edges between different departments. “I appreciate the way he organized the college,” he says. “Some new committees were developed that helped focus on minorities, less-heard voices, the needs of faculty, and needs of students.”
Porter has influenced many through his mediatory work, whether that be between student and teacher, faculty and administrator, or faith and science. He will continue to have a rippling effect after he retires in the summer of 2023. When talking about what he’ll miss, he says, “I worry about not having this huge, meaningful piece to my life.” Truly, Porter has brought meaning to many lives—and he will continue to do so even after he leaves the College of Life Sciences.