“I love teaching both online and in person. They are both challenging and interesting and both require good teaching and pedagogy.”
Every year, the University of Arizona awards The Gerald G. Swanson Prize for Teaching Excellence to only three instructors in recognition of excellence in undergraduate teaching at the University. Dr. Lisa Rezende, Assistant Professor of Practice in the MCB Department, was selected as one of the winners, and it’s no surprise, given Dr. Rezende’s passion for teaching and her students’ positive feedback from her courses. Rezende’s college experience didn’t start in science…. or teaching, however! She entered Cal Poly as a first-generation college student and declared business as her major. Her parents owned a business and a business major seemed to be a logical fit. While she was interested in science, she “didn't see it as a career I was interested in. It wasn’t until I took an Intro to Biology course my first semster of college that had more problem-solving than my high school biology course, that I considered science as a major.” Rezende decided to change her major to Biochemistry her freshmen year. “I didn't like business classes that much! I always liked chemistry but I wasn’t interested in being a chemist. Biochemistry was interesting to me because I liked learning how things happen at molecular level and I liked the research problems I could answer. It was a lot more fun than high school biology which felt more like memorization to me.”
Before she committed to changing her major, Rezende did a lot of research on job options for a graduate with a B.S. in Biochemistry. “At this point, I was thinking four years to get my B.S. then get a job in industry as a scientist. At Cal Poly their motto is – “learn by doing” and every student had to do a senior project. I did mine with my biochemistry professor and it was very interesting. I worked on building a new module for her undergraduate biochemistry lab. I enjoyed the freedom of working on my own project and found it more fun than the 3-hour labs associated with my courses. She inspired me to pursue graduate school and pursue a career in teaching.”
At that point Rezende started considering teaching but was also intrigued by science communication. She had an English minor and enjoyed writing. She graduated in 1992, amid a recession (Rezende can relate to students graduating this month!) Since job prospects weren’t abundant, she decided to go straight to graduate school to pursue her PhD. She attended Albert Einstein College of Medicine where she studied the biochemistry of HIV-1 reverse transcriptase. “I liked the research but I knew at that point I wanted to teach.” Rezende headed to Harvard Medical School to complete her postdoc in a lab that worked on DNA replication in a simple system, the bacteriophage T7. During that time, she had the opportunity to spend a summer working in science communication through the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship Program.
Upon completing her postdoc, Rezende came to the University of Arizona and started developing and teaching online courses. “I love teaching both online and in person. They are both challenging and interesting and both require good teaching and pedagogy.” It can be a challenge to make a connection with students when teaching online, but Rezende puts in the effort and her students notice and appreciate it. “Ever since I took Introductory Biology with Dr. Rezende over the summer, I have been raving about her teaching to everyone I know. Even though I took it online, I could tell from her course structure and materials she provided us that she genuinely cares about her students and wants them to be successful. I enjoyed her class so much that when offered the opportunity to be a learning assistant for her in-person fall lecture, I didn’t even need to think twice. Dr. Rezende helped me to rediscover my love for biology and even influenced my recent change of major” noted one of her students. While Rezende has many years of successful online teaching experience, moving quickly to online this semester due to COVID-19 was still challenging. She was already teaching MCB 181 lecture and lab online this semester, so the only course she needed to switch to remote learning was her freshman colloquium, MCB 195i. Even in a scheduled to be 100% online course, she was concerned about how the world events were affecting students and made extra effort to reach out and let them know she wanted to help them succeed.
Another passion of Rezende’s is teaching students how to communicate science. “Scientists need to be able to talk about what they do in an accessible manner. I like teaching how to explain not only the scientific concepts, but also the process of science, the levels of evidence needed to support policy change or health recommendations. We have to be able to communicate science in a clear fashion and put it in the right context - what it means today and what it might mean ten years down the road.” Rezende applies what she learned in her mass media fellowship and several years working with patient advocacy groups to the MCB Stem Outreach and Recruitment Team (SORT) class for several years. One of the things she teaches in this class is how important is it for the public to believe science and scientists. “It's important to be able to put things in context, to speak clearly and responsibly so people don’t become numb to the information. If everything is a breakthrough, how is the average person supposed to know when new research really affects their life? Often, context gets lost, especially in headlines and social media, so we have to put the information in context.” She wants to help students understand the full science so they can make informed decisions. “Most people can't pick up a science journal and read a study and put it in context of impacts to them. They get information from news and social media and learning how to be responsible with the info is critical! SORT teaches students how to have a conversation with people and how to explain the science process with evidence and respectfully and responsibly, as well as how to think critically, ask the right questions, and acknowledge when they don't know the answer.” Rezende’s SORT students affirm that she lives what she teaches. “I believe one of Dr. Rezende’s most notable strengths as an educator to be her dedication to ensuring accessibility of science information, both in the classroom and the wider community. As a teacher, she clearly delineates expectations and course content, gradually building upon basic ideas to reach a deeper understanding. During outreach events, she condenses complex biological information into clear explanations with which any audience can engage and connect. Her passion for science education exemplifies the University of Arizona’s goal of education for both its students and the community” commented one of her SORT students in the letter of recommendation the student wrote. (If you are interested taking the SORT course - MCB 397c, it is offered in the spring and fall. More info here.)
Are you thinking of a career in teaching? Rezende recommends “Really understanding the material! It's so important to have teachers that have a depth of knowledge.” She also believes building trust with students is a key element in being a successful teacher. “Building trust with students that you are not wasting their time is important, that each component of the course has a purpose! You can ask me anytime why we are doing something. I am very transparent about that.”
If you haven’t had the opportunity to take one of Dr. Rezende’s courses, she is teaching MCB 181 lecture and lab online summer 2020, which will be open to all students. This fall (2020), she is co-teaching MCB 413 (Human Genetics: Sex, Crime, and Disease) with Dr. Lisa Elfring and Dr. George Sutphin as well as MCB 330: Critical Reasoning in Biomedicine and MCB 181 lecture and lab for students enrolled in Arizona Online and UA Global. And if you aren’t fortunate enough to experience Dr. Rezende as a teacher, stop by her office for a lively chat about science, science education, or science writing! She is a terrific resource for students, as well as faculty and staff!