Faculty Friday: Phil Cox Encourages Students to Pursue their Dreams

Phil Cox, PhD, will never forget his first biochemistry class at Azusa Pacific University. Having just finished his doctorate in pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University, Cox made the decision to go into teaching, unlike many of his peers at Hopkins who chose a career in research. His first class, Principles of Biochemistry, in spring 2017 taught him a lot. “I remember inviting students over to my house for dinner, helping students out during office hours, and the real privilege of students talking with me about the uncertainties in their classes and in their life,” he said.

“That was my first experience mentoring students and I’m grateful to that class for giving me that gift.”

Although originally from a small town in Illinois, Cox spent most of his childhood in Oklahoma City. He developed a love for math early on which morphed into a passion for science in high school when he saw how math was a foundational tool for chemistry. Cox attended Southern Nazarene University, where his father taught as a chemistry professor, for his undergraduate studies. “I feel like I ended up in the family business,” he joked. Cox loved his education at SNU where the faculty weren’t afraid to talk about the ways that science and the Christian faith can engage thoughtfully with one another. “I still keep in touch with them. Those have developed into really significant relationships for me, especially now that I’m a professor too.”

During his undergraduate studies, Cox completed three summer research programs at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, the University of Oklahoma, and at Harvard University. “Harvard was an amazing experience. I got to work on a really neat project, the replication of a human herpes virus, stuff I couldn’t work on at a smaller school, using equipment my school didn’t have,” he said. Cox’s favorite experiences at Harvard were gleaning insight from other incredibly talented students and engaging in professional development opportunities. After Harvard, Cox returned to SNU, finished his bachelor’s degree, and got a job at a research lab studying anthrax and how to improve the anthrax vaccine. After two years in the lab, Cox got married and he and his wife moved to Baltimore for graduate school. While his wife pursued a Masters in Public Policy at George Washington University, he began his PhD at Hopkins.

As he got deeper into his program, Cox told his faculty advisor that he was interested in teaching. She made time to help him along his route and when he saw a job pop up on the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities website, she advised him to go for it. After a few interviews, he landed the job at APU and began packing to move across the country with his wife. “The position fit very well for me in terms of subject matter and being at a faith-based institution,” Cox said. “My path to APU wasn’t a traditional one, but I’m very grateful to be here.”

Cox’s favorite part of working at APU is the students he gets to instruct. “Our students have such amazing stories. They’re so talented and have big dreams for themselves,” he said. “It’s a privilege to help them realize those dreams.” Many of his students have gone on to grad school, some with full rides based on their accomplishments at APU. Cox enjoys pouring into students and encouraging their dreams. “I recognize special students and tell them, ‘You’ve got what it takes.’ They tell me, ‘Nobody’s ever told me that before,’” he said. “I have the perspective of knowing how everyone in the class is doing and I can tell them that they are exceptional.”

For the upcoming school year, Cox is excited to conduct research with student assistants. APU recently made a $2 million investment to support research across the university, including in the Department of Biology and Chemistry. “I’m ecstatic that we’re getting a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer, the same industry standard one I used at Hopkins,” Cox said.

“With it, we’ll be able to measure any small molecule we want. This advances the capabilities of research in our department to levels that I never knew we could achieve.”

Cox loves combining research and mentoring with his students. While many universities require students to wait until graduate school to conduct research, APU offers numerous opportunities for students to research in undergrad. “Having students engage in long-term research projects helps train our students to think like scientists,” he said. Cox said this experience is more valuable than his summer research programs, where it was an 8-10 week blitz and just beginning to get his feet wet. “Here, we’re able to bring students on for a couple of years and by the time they reach the end of that experience, they have a really good understanding of the project and the research process,” he said. “It’s a great way to build relationships with students while they’re at APU and support them as they continue onto life after graduation.”