Above the door in Dr. Cliff Boucher’s office hangs a sketch of a cheetah, given to him by a former student – an art major – who spent her time in his biology class drawing instead of taking notes.
The framed sketch serves as a reminder to him about his unlikely journey to teaching – a journey that started at TJC and took him through Harvard Medical School and back to Tyler.
Boucher, who now serves as Department Chair for Life Sciences and Veterinary Technology, recently added Dean to his title. He’ll be taking the helm for TJC North, the new name for TJC’s Lindale Campus. But teaching, and now administration, was never part of his plan.
He grew up in Tyler and his parents met at TJC in the “Teepee,” the former administration building that was torn down in the ‘80s to make way for the White Administrative Services Center. Boucher’s mom was TJC’s school nurse before she retired in 1996.
“She [Zelda Boucher] was very much a die-hard Apache. She was a TJC fan through and through,” he said. Both of his parents now live in Lindale.
He spent his last two years in high school taking courses at TJC. He started his college career as a business major until taking Ms. Judy Pilgrim’s biology class. A few weeks after classes started, she arrived in her class – stadium seating – wearing blue scuba fins.
Pilgrim began trotting her blue feet side to side mimicking the ritual dance of a certain South American bird species.
“Then and there I decided: If science can be that fun, I’m in.”
“Her class changed me. If anything, my entrance into a path of research and teaching really did start right here at TJC.”
From there he went to Austin College and graduated with a bachelor’s in biology. Medical school was the next step, but again, another professor caught his interests and turned his attention to research.
Boucher helped with research for a drug company that was making a toothache remedy – eventually called Orajel.
“At that point, I was like ‘you know med school is med school, but this is cool.'”
He withdrew his applications to medical school and started doing research full time for his master’s degree. He spent two-and-a-half years at UT Tyler before ending up at UT Health Center in San Antonio under the direction of researcher Dr. Vojo Deretic.
“It’s the culture from the last 90 years. The one culture that has persevered and stayed here: family. It’s the culture that makes this such a wonderful place to work." - Dr. Cliff Boucher
Within two years he came up with his thesis and followed Deretic to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In Michigan, he spent six years working on his doctoral thesis on the bacterium responsible for most lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients, Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Boucher holds a co-patent on the research, centered around Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Cystic Fibrosis.
But Boucher wasn’t done with school just yet. He took a research position at Harvard Medical, where he transitioned into teaching medical students as part of a three-person team.
“When you’re walking into one of these big rooms with med students, it’s a little stressful,” he said. “But it was incredibly rewarding to hear a doctor’s perspective on disease.”
Teaching was satisfying a part of him he didn’t know existed: a passion for teaching.
After working at Harvard, he started looking for other jobs closer to home, including a research and teaching position at The University of Louisiana in Shreveport. But the balance between teaching and research would have been heavily skewed.
“I got to the interview and they said I was only going to have 12 lectures a year,” he said. “Twelve times in a classroom? I got home and told my wife Sandra ‘I don’t know if that’s what I want to do.’”
Then, a chance phone call from the biology department chair at UT Tyler brought Boucher back home. He taught at UT Tyler from 2004 to 2010, and in 2010, Boucher came back to his first home: TJC, where he taught for two years before becoming department chair.
“I walked into [Dean Kenneth] Murphy’s office and said I would like to apply for department chair,” Boucher said. “I think I might be suited for it and I’d like to try.”
So the balance between his love for research and teaching became a balance between teaching and administration.
It was teaching that brought him the most joy, seeing students who learn in different ways, and opening their eyes to life sciences the same way Ms. Parks opened his.
One of those students – the one who sketched cheetahs in his classroom – ended up being an A student. When he asked her about the cheetahs, she said that it helped her focus during the lecture.
Years later she gave Boucher one of those sketches as a gift, and now it serves as a reminder about the diversity of the TJC student body.
“It was such an eye-opener for me to not stereotype a student. To be sure to embrace every student equally, because you never know what’s under the cover.”
Under his leadership at TJC North, Boucher will be directing the new vet tech lab, where students in the program will get hands-on training. In addition, he’ll be overseeing the TJC North campus, and building pathways from the high schools in the northern district to TJC North.
All of this is possible by what Boucher says is the culture at TJC. “It’s the culture from the last 90 years. The one culture that has persevered and stayed here: family. It’s the culture that makes this such a wonderful place to work."
“Everybody treats each other as family.”