This summer Maria Patestas, Ph.D., retired after 30 years of teaching the anatomy subdisciplines at Des Moines University. Still, she is as excited about her field — giddy, even — as when she joined the university as an assistant professor.
“All the neural connections and the mystery that shrouds them in neuroanatomy fascinate me. I’m just in awe with how things work,” she says. “Neuroanatomy is my toy. I don’t know how to describe it any other way.” Widely known by students and faculty for her ability to break down concepts into simple, bite-sized pieces — she’s explained Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system using a pencil and an empty toothpaste tube — Patestas also is the author of several neuroanatomy textbooks. Her co-author, retired University of Maryland anatomy professor Leslie Gartner, Ph.D., recognized her potential when she interviewed for Maryland’s master’s program in anatomy 41 years ago.
“Maria was a very serious young lady and an eager student who wanted to learn everything that the anatomy faculty could teach her. She was able to absorb a tremendous amount of information and acquired an almost encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of anatomy. But what impressed me most was her ability to transmit all that information to her students without overwhelming them.”
— Leslie Gartner, Ph.D.
Patestas plans to continue doing so as a textbook author, even in retirement. She credits her ardent appetite for knowledge and sharing it partly to the fact her parents didn’t have opportunities for a formal education. They supported their daughter’s academic pursuits, from grade school on the Greek island of Andros to middle and high school in New York to her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Long Island University and master’s and doctoral degrees in anatomy from the University of Maryland.
“I fell in love with school, learning and education. Having humble beginnings may have ultimately been an advantage,” she says. “My students’ education is very important to me. I had a language barrier when we came to the United States and experienced what it’s like to not understand.”
Patestas says presenting lectures to a “sea of students” was her favorite aspect of teaching, even back when her main tools were a slide projector and two-by-two inch Kodachrome slides. Students are the accomplishment she is most proud of.
“I’m truly honored to have been part of their journey to success, and I see that success in hospitals and clinics all over Des Moines,” she says. “I’ve had talented, collegial colleagues, and our collaborative efforts contributed to students’ success. That’s very satisfying.”