Thursday, August 27, 2015

A miniseries featuring interviews with former Club members about their jobs

By Club Blog Steward Evan Palmer-Young

Our first interviewee is Melissa Ha. Melissa was Club co-President and got her MS under Lynn Adler in the UMass Organismic & Evolutionary Biology (OEB) program before departing for her current position teaching at Mojave Community College.

Welcome to the Blog, Melissa! Let's get started with some questions:

Please tell us a bit about your background, from pre-Fernald days through the present.
I attended two community colleges before transferring to California State University, Chico and earning a B.S. in Biological Sciences. I went on to earn an M.S. degrees at the same institution before earning an M.S. degree in Organismic and Evolutionary biology at UMass Amherst. 

What have you been doing since leaving the Fernald Club?
I went on to teach general biology and microbiology at Mohave Community College in Kingman, Arizona. 

When did you develop an interest in insects?
I first developed an interest in insects while taking a general entomology class at California State University, Chico. We had a weekend camping field trip to collect desert insects and were required to prepare an insect collection as our final project. I then volunteered to curate the insect collection for the next two years during which I focused on spreading and identifying butterflies and moths, visiting elementary schools with my collection, and preparing displays for local museums. I was thrilled to join the Fernald club when I began graduate school and UMass Amherst, and enjoyed the graduate-level entomology classes offered by the university. Collecting and identifying pollinators has been an important part of my research on indirect interactions between plants that are mediated by pollinators. 

What sorts of tasks and problems are you currently tackling (or being tackled by), and what are your key motivators?
I am always thinking of new ways to cultivate an interest in biology. At Mohave Community College (MCC), many students are interested in vocational allied health degrees such as nursing, but few are interested in majoring in sciences such as biology, chemistry, and physics. By representing the Science Department at recruitment events, I hope to bring students with a passion for science to MCC. Additionally, faculty members including myself are in the process of getting greenhouses and a salt water aquarium installed on campus, which will facilitate more engaging labs and perhaps spark and interest in pursuing science.

My key motivators are the students. When I see how hard they work to balance work, school, and family, I am compelled to provide every resource possible to help them succeed in my classes and every opportunity to discover the career that is right for them. 

What are the most critical skills for the work you are doing now? How do you make it work given your strengths and weaknesses?
Biology faculty at community colleges must have a broad knowledge of the field. Even though I specialized in plant-insect evolution and ecology, I am expected to understand topics such as cellular respiration, bacterial identification, and the function of the immune system well enough to teach them. I rely on my ability to learn independently to review the necessary topics. As a microbiology instructor, I learned many things for the first time while in preparation to teach them. While planning ahead and putting in the study time have served me well, I had to accept that I do not always know the answers to my students questions. It is okay to tell students that you don't know the answer as an instructor, and they gain respect for you if you look up their questions and discuss them during the next class. 

It is also crucial to find the balance between being approachable to students yet maintaining authority. Especially for a young female faculty member, it is important to dress professionally to distinguish myself from the students. It is hard to know that returning an assignment with a failing grade might ruin a student's day or that refusing to let students make up late work without a compelling reason might mean that they fail the class. I remind myself these are forms of tough love and that it is more important to provide knowledge, career skills, and life lessons than be liked by all students all of the time. 

How about any key personality traits?
The most critical traits are organization, patience, flexibility, and persistence. A genuine care for these students can elicit these last three traits. 

Do you have any long-term plans? Any entomology in them?
I feel that my current position instructing community college suits me, and I hope to continue with this profession. Because curriculum and technology are always changing and there is always room to refine teaching skills, I believe this profession will be mentally stimulating for a long time. While entomology will not be a large part of my career, I do enjoy incorporating it into general biology lectures and labs. 

Thanks  so much for your time, Melissa! Good luck in the upcoming semester!