Thursday, November 29, 2007

teaching and mentoring

This week I taught my last lab of the semester. It sure did go by quickly! I prepared a little 'thank you' to my students and told them to feel free to come talk to me and let me know what they're up to since I'll be here at least as long as they will be. A few people's eyes bugged out when I told them my Ph.D. program would take 5-7 years. For some reason though things felt awkward with my first lab of the week. It was still hard to get them to volunteer answers for my questions and things just felt weird. Not what I hoped for my last class with them! I am always a little less polished with them so perhaps they were feeling bad because they gave me less than glowing evaluations or something? One of my students from that lab (the one who wants to be my Facebook friend and invited me to a Halloween party where he was really drunk and tried to tell me that because he invited me to the party that I was supposed to give him 100's on his lab reports...) said as he left, "Well, it's been an interesting semester. I'll leave it at that." What does that mean? Oh well.

My second lab was much better. I'm usually better for the second lab because I've been through the topic already with my first lab and made my mistakes with them. Plus, this week we were studying plant reproduction. I actually got to talk about my research! I really knew this week's topic because, frankly, I taught quite a few classes on flower anatomy and seed parts to first and fifth graders at Mid-Atlantic Field Station. A couple of women in my class really lit up when they realized that when they eat seeds they are eating the "lunch for the baby plant in the box." We also talked about why peanuts "split in half like that" when you open them. I think they'll remember now what a dicot is. It's so rewarding to watch students "get it."

At the end of my second lab a few women, including some of my older students, thanked me and told me they'd be surprised if I got any bad evaluations. It made me really happy to hear them say that. I hope some of them do let me know what they're up to and come to me if they have internship or career questions. A few weeks ago one of my students interviewed me for an assignment for another class about careers in biology. It was so exciting to talk about the possibilities!

Another one of my students (from my first lab) came to talk to me about her interest in plants. She is a first year but really seems to have her act together and have good self confidence and communication skills. Her plan is to go to pharmacy school and so we talked about medicinal plants and how plants and pharmacy were a great combination of interests. While I was working at Mid-Atlantic Field Station I saw an awesome presentation by a professor of pharmacy who teaches herbal remedies to pharm students so I gave her his name. She also wants to study abroad! I really like this student and I hope she finds some great opportunities.

This week in my required grad course we talked about issues of gender and ethnic diversity in academia and ecology specifically. We had a visiting speaker who is one of a handful of African American ecologists. She said she thought the most important thing for increasing diversity in science is mentoring. I think everyone who is passionate about what they do can identify a mentor who encouraged them to pursue that interest and coached them through life's hurdles. I certainly have many, many mentors to thank for getting me this far in science. I hope that I can similarly assist students in navigating the road to a life in science, especially students who come from different backgrounds and possess unique insights and perspectives. I have to say that's something, among other things, that Herb appears to do quite well. He has definitely put his money where his mouth is when it comes to recruiting and advising students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

I have more thoughts on teaching as the semester wraps up but I'll save them for a later post.

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