Don Frazier is so passionate about physiology that he has been spreading his love of science through education outreach for much of his life.
Like Kentucky’s very own “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” Frazier’s fun personality and pure love of what he does captivates anyone who listens to him — regardless of age. Frazier, an alumnus of the University of Kentucky and professor emeritus of the UK College of Medicine Department of Physiology, formally retired from his faculty positions in physiology and biomedical engineering in 2000. He’s turning 88 years old this year, but age is no match for Frazier — he refuses to let anything slow him down.
Today, Frazier continues to do what he enjoys through a post-retirement appointment. He runs the UK Science Outreach Center, renamed the Donald T. Frazier Science Outreach Center in his honor back in 2015. The outreach center formally opened its doors at the University of Kentucky in 1993 and has been helping K-12 students learn about the scientific wonders of our world ever since.
“What we try to do here is inform kids of all ages about how wonderful the ‘human machine’ is,” Frazier said. “How DNA starts with two cells and multiplies trillions of times to create your incredible self. We’re always talking about how amazing the scientific wonder of life is here, in many ways.”
Through his 0utreach efforts, Frazier and his team have taught over 147,000 students across the state of Kentucky to hopefully inspire them to enter science-related career paths. But when COVID-19 struck in 2020, the outreach center was forced to halt its operations.
“We really need more kids excited about science — which is what we try to do here,” Frazier said. But, of course, because of the pandemic, we couldn’t travel to schools, and we couldn’t host them in our center on campus here either, which was really difficult.”
This year, Frazier is excited to announce that the outreach center is back in full swing.
“We’re so glad to have classes back in the outreach center this year," Frazier said. “We welcome any and all middle and high school classes to come visit us here and learn about science. And for the elementary kids in Central Kentucky, we’re offering to travel and teach them right from the comfort of their own classroom.”
Frazier’s outreach lessons, whether in-house or out at schools, are curated specifically to each class that comes to see him, to first and foremost support their existing curriculum in a fun, interactive way.
“We’re not trying to do anything other than support the classroom teacher,” Frazier said. “Any teacher that wants their class to spend a day here corresponds with me beforehand to talk about what the kids are learning, so I can target the lesson specifically to fit their learning needs.”
Recently, the outreach center had health sciences students from Adair County High School (ACHS) come in for a lesson on physiology and DNA. The students had the opportunity to hold and interact with real-life scientific artifacts that Frazier has collected over the course of his career — like a human brain, spinal cord, lungs and heart. Afterward, they got to see how everything fits together in a real-life cadaver at the UK gross anatomy lab.
“For the higher-level students, we try to book them with the UK gross anatomy lab to visit after their lesson with me in the outreach center,” Frazier said. “This is only for the older, higher-level kids, but I believe it really rounds out the education we provide here.”
Jennifer Carter, ACHS health sciences teacher and registered nurse, and Rebecca Cravens, ACHS athletic trainer and sports medicine instructor, chose to bring their students in to expose them to something they wouldn’t have necessarily had from inside the walls of their own classroom.
“This was our first time bringing the students out to the outreach center,” Carter said. “It was just absolutely amazing. It really helps enhance the concepts we learn in school when they get to see the specimens in person and have a real-life experience with them. The students absolutely loved Dr. Frazier. He made them laugh and engaged both the students, and us, the instructors, like a breeze.”
The experience was so great for the kids, that they hope to return again and again.
“The kids said it was one of the best field trips they’ve ever been on,” Carter said. “So, we truly hope to make this an annual trip. They loved seeing the connection between anatomy, physiology and to see, hands-on, how all these organs work together in our bodies.”
Another underlying goal of Frazier’s is to teach kids why it is so important to take care of their bodies.
“Once I can get the students interested in learning about how their bodies work, then I can motivate them to take care of this awesome ‘machine’ they’ve been given,” Frazier said. “I want them to take responsibility for a healthy diet, enough exercise, sleep, and to avoid drugs and smoking. These are all important factors to live a healthy life, no matter what career path they choose. So, every student, whether they decide to enter science-related careers or not, can benefit from our lessons here.”
Several students who have been impacted by Frazier’s teachings over the years continue to stay in close touch with him. One former student, Cara Childers Keller, MD, works in Louisville as a practicing OB-GYN. She says if it weren’t for Frazier’s mentorship, she may never have entered medicine.
“I originally met Dr. Frazier my freshman year at UK when I was in the honors program,” Keller said. “This was 19 years ago now. Dr. Frazier has been more like a grandfather to me than anything. He’s completely changed my life, and I would do anything for him.”
When she was a student, Keller had opportunities to work and teach in the outreach center alongside Frazier, which she says was one of her favorite things to do.
“Other students and I would always be in there, and we had the chance to teach some of the K-12 students with Dr. Frazier,” Keller said. “It was so fun, we all really loved it. And it truly helped round out my education in medicine.”
Jacob Jones, a current fourth-year medical student in the UK College of Medicine, says Frazier has helped direct him into the exact medical path he wants to go.
“I met Dr. Frazier when I began school here at UK,” Jones said. “It was like the man had a center of gravity — everyone just gravitated toward him. So, I knew he’d be a great mentor. He invited me to give lectures in the outreach center to the kids, and it really showed me some of the disparities that some of the more rural counties encounter here in Kentucky.”
Jones, who will graduate in May, said this experience with Frazier and the Frazier Science Outreach Center has inspired him to return to his home county and give back to the community he once came from.
“I’m from Bell County, and I plan on returning there after residency to practice family medicine,” Jones said. “Frazier really inspired me to give back, and I’m so thankful for him.”
This year and moving forward, reaching elementary schoolers across the state is a primary focus of Frazier’s.
“It’s harder to get elementary schools to come out for a variety of reasons,” Frazier said. “So, we’ll travel to them. This is important to me because we recognize that in order to get kids excited about science, you must ‘sow the seeds’ early in their educational careers. The earlier, the better.”
In addition to onsite and offsite school visits, over its existence, the Frazier Science Outreach Center has been involved with several extramural awards at the state, federal and foundational levels. This exposed students to research experience and biomedical-related career opportunities. Currently, the center is involved with two federally funded programs.
“Prior to the outreach center opening its doors, I had been engaging in some humble outreach efforts with students for years,” Frazier said. “But this space has been such a blessing for outreach efforts over the past three decades — it has helped so many students learn to enjoy science, and I am so thankful.”
In the future, he hopes to continue to get medical and undergraduate students involved in creating educational science videos that schools can access across the state, if anyone is unable to visit. The videos will be available on the Frazier Science Outreach Center website for use at any time.
If you are interested in having your middle or high school class visit the Donald T. Frazier Outreach Center, or to have Frazier and his team come to your elementary school, contact tour coordinator Lisa M. Stevens at 859-257-6440.