Biological sciences lecturer Curto was ‘very passionate about teaching’

Long-time Department of Biological Sciences lecturer Karen Curto died on March 29, 2019 at 72.

Fellow department lecturer Zuzana Swigonova, with whom Curto collaborated on several projects, recalls her colleague as “very passionate about teaching, and also curious. It drove her to develop new approaches to teaching.”

The two met a decade ago, when Swigonova arrived and Curto was already a veteran of the department. Curto taught the honors-level foundations of biology course while Swigonova taught the basic level.

“That’s where we started to collaborate on curricular development,” Swigonova recalls. “Karen was always looking up what is the next step to improve teaching and help students to learn. She was a little bit restless because there was no ending to her drive to help students learn.”

Curto also was very active in mentoring undergraduate researchers, she adds.

Together, they wrote a review book, “Biology Builder – Practice Makes Perfect,” published in 2013 by Kendall Hunt. They also created an online flipped classroom module on cystic fibrosis, published by Pearson in 2015, which uses active learning ideas to teach about the protein involved in CF and its mutations.

Curto received an Innovation in Education Award from the provost’s office in 2006 for a project titled “Speaking Like a Biologist: Developing Instructional Communication Modules and Synchronous Feedback for Scientists.” She and Swigonova worked on other classroom improvement projects prior to Curto’s retirement — projects that are still resulting in grants and awards. Curto was widely published, both concerning educational technology and basic biology research.

Curto “was very private,” Swigonova says, “but she had an amazing sense of humor. She was very sharp, so she didn't talk a lot, but when she did it was always worth it to listen.”

Born in Pittsburgh, Curto earned her B.A. in experimental psychology, with a minor in biology, from Chatham University and her M.A. in experimental analysis of behavior at Bryn Mawr College in eastern Pennsylvania. After working in the federal Bureau of Radiological Health in Rockville, Md., for several years, she earned her Ph.D. in 1983 in toxicology and pharmacology at West Virginia University.

She began her academic career that year as a postdoctoral fellow in Pitt’s Department of Biochemistry in the School of Medicine, then moved to WVU as a postdoctoral fellow, research instructor and finally research assistant professor. She was a research associate in the Laboratory of Cardiovascular Science at the Gerontology Research Center, National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health in Baltimore from 1994-1998, then joined the Pitt faculty in 1999, rising from visiting lecturer to lecturer II by her last academic year, 2016-17.

She is survived by her brother, Frank S. Curto Jr.; sister-in-law, Christine Curto; and nephew and niece Ryan and Colleen, as well as an aunt and uncle and many cousins.

Memorial contributons are suggested to the Cleft Palate Craniofacial Center; c/o Paul Casey, Director of Development; 440 Salk Hall, 3501 Terrace St., Pittsburgh, PA 15261, or the Carcinoid Cancer Foundation, 333 Mamaroneck Ave. #492, White Plains, NY 10605.