Rajagopal wants students to see the big picture
Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 00:02
When Nero came to power in Ancient Rome, he used poisonous mushrooms to eliminate his predecessor. Students may not see the connection between this historical assassination and the life sciences, but University Honors College Eminent Professor award winner Indira Rajagopal offers a link between them.
“Here is a situation where the succession of who was in power depended upon knowledge of which mushrooms were poisonous and which were not,” said Indira Rajagopal, adjunct senior instructor of biochemistry and biophysics at Oregon State University. “You want to understand everything in the light of what you learn in each area, and that connection sometimes gets lost for students.”
Rajagopal first discovered her passion for teaching and education as a postdoctoral student. Though she intended to dedicate much of her time to research, she found teaching to be rewarding and full of satisfaction.
“There’s something about explaining a subject that you love to somebody, and then they get it and get excited about it,” Rajagopal said. “And then, when you see that returning spark in someone’s eyes, you see that people realize: ‘This is an amazing subject.’”
A few years ago, Rajagopal said she had a student who came to class with a bad attitude and was apathetic toward the class material. However, as the term went on, the student came up to Rajagopal and expressed her realization on why the content mattered.
For Rajagopal, the importance of education comes from students being able to see the bigger picture and applying what they learn to what is going on in the world.
“She taught me how to step back and see the world on a bigger scale than my ‘small’ college eyes,” said Minhazur Sarker, a senior studying microbiology on a pre-medicine track.
If students can use the knowledge and skills they learn in school, then they can navigate the world, find something meaningful and figure out how to place random information into context.
“Let’s say you memorized all the streets in San Francisco … well that’s an amazing feat of memory, but what in the world are you going to do with that?” Rajagopal said. “The only point in learning some of that information is so that you can navigate and by understanding how things intersect, how they’re connected to each other, will help you get from one place to another.”
Although many students focus on the aesthetic qualities of their transcripts, Rajagopal encourages students to step into the unknown and allow room for mistakes.
“You’re not going to be Michael Phelps without ever getting into the pool and splashing around and swallowing water,” Rajagopal said.
During her time in graduate school, Rajagopal remembers working on a problem and unconsciously took out a piece of paper, drew a line down the center, and wrote what she knew on one side and what she was trying to figure out on the other side.
She learned this systematic way of finding answers in the fourth grade.
Rajagopal said that her fourth grade teacher had given her a valuable gift for organizing thoughts. Now, Rajagopal pays homage to her teacher by demonstrating the skill to her own students.
“That’s the cool thing about teaching, you’ll never know how far that’s going to go,” Rajagopal said.
This year, Rajagopal was one of two recipients of the University Honors College Eminent Professor awards.
“I firmly believe she is the best science instructor on the campus and one of the best instructors of any subject at OSU,” said Kevin Ahearn, director of undergraduate research and senior instructor of biochemistry and biophysics. “She puts more time and effort into her classes and in working with students than anyone I know.”
The University Honors College Eminent Professor award is now part of Rajagopal’s collection of teaching awards. Rajagopal has been awarded several other awards including the Carter award, University Honors College Professor of the Year award and OSU Beaver Champion award.
“When I found out that Indira was awarded the UHC Eminent Professor award this year, the first thing I did was share the link on Facebook and comment about how it was well deserved,” Sarker said. “I think she got it because she earned it.”
In addition to her passion for education, Rajagopal also feels passionately about the environment.