Four Educators who teach Genetics Recognized for their Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Education

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Each year, awards for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Education are given to professors and teaching assistants in the School of Arts and Sciences to recognize their outstanding achievements in and beyond the classroom, their engagement with their students and pedagogic communities, and their overall commitment to the undergraduate education mission. Each year, the theme that inevitably shines through in each nomination is the students’ understanding that these instructors “genuinely want us to learn.”

This year we gave special attention to recognizing outstanding contributions since March 1, 2020 –since the pandemic has necessitated online instruction—as well as considering individuals nominated, as is traditional, for an extended period of distinguished contributions. In addition to the usual rank-based categories, we created a special category for Pandemic Pedagogy, open to any full-time SAS faculty/staff, or group of faculty/staff, who did outstanding work in supporting others during the pandemic in developing instruction that meets the highest standards for online pedagogy.

We are indebted to each of these instructors and staff members and are grateful for their untiring support of our students and stewardship of the future.

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Four educators who teach genetics were recognized for their Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Education: Assistant Professor Premal Shah, Associate Professor Gary Heiman, Assistant Teaching Professor Mai Soliman, and Teaching Assistant Gyu Ik (Daniel) Jung.

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(from left to right: Gary Heiman,  Premal Shah, Mai Soliman Gyu Ik (Daniel) Jung

Gary Heiman, Associate Professor

Since joining the Rutgers faculty in 2007, Professor Heiman has proactively designed and enacted multiple, Professor Heiman has proactively designed and enacted multiple successful curricular and program innovations for undergraduate students in genetic counseling, several of which have been featured in Rutgers Today and SAS News and Events articles.

One of Professor Heiman’s most significant undergraduate program innovations was the creation of the Rutgers Genetic Counseling Certificate Program (GCCP). This program—the only one of its kind worldwide—aims to provide students with the necessary guidance, coursework, and relevant clinical experience to prepare them for master’s-level graduate programs in genetic counseling. Many GCCP alumni are now practicing genetic counselors across the country, and consistently report that both the program and Professor Heiman have had a profound impact on their lives and career trajectories. One notes, “Dr. Heiman not only introduced me to the career that I grew to love, but he also played a key role in ensuring my success. He remained a source of guidance throughout pursuing both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and now I am fortunate enough to have him as a colleague. His dedication to guiding both the intellectual and psychosocial development of students is unmatched when compared to other professors on campus.”

Professor Heiman also developed and regularly teaches a course entitled Effective Communication Skills in Genetics (01:447:430) that has been described by the department as one its most important courses. It provides students with practice in effectively communicating scientific findings in a variety of formats and it receives rave reviews from students, who frequently comment on how valuable the real-world skills they developed through the course will be for them in their future endeavors—both within science and more generally. Since January 2020, Professor Heiman has also served as the Vice Chair and Undergraduate Director for the Department of Genetics. In this role, he has actively worked to improve departmental procedures and systems and has been an enthusiastic and important contributor to the community of undergraduate directors within SAS. In all of these areas, it is abundantly clear that Professor Heiman is exceedingly well-deserving of this. In all of these areas, it is abundantly clear that Professor Heiman is exceedingly well-deserving of this recognition for his Distinguished Contribution to Undergraduate Education.

Premal Shah, Assistant Professor

Since joining the Department of Genetics in 2016, Professor Shah has been an important contributor to undergraduate education in the department. He designed and teaches the Computational Genetics of Big Data course (01:447:303), which both serves as an elective and fulfills the requirements of the Computational Genetics certificate available to majors. Student interest in the course has grown to the point that its graduate level cross-listing regularly includes students from multiple SAS programs.

One of the challenging aspects of teaching this course is that the students often do not have previous experience in computation, programming, and dealing with large datasets. As the professor humorously remarks, “The only pre-requisite for the class is being able to turn on/off a computer.” It requires excellent teaching instincts and practice to convey difficult material in a way that is accessible to trepidatious students while also maintaining sufficient rigor and substance. Yet Professor Shah helps his students manage the steep learning curve. His patient, clear, student-centered teaching approach helps students to overcome their fears and successfully encourages them to engage with and develop comfort with handling large genomic (and other) datasets. Many students remark on this in their course evaluations and the SIRS scores for the course are strong. One student said, for example, “Going into this course, I was daunted as I had no computational experience whatsoever. Dr. Shah not only helped me learn something way out of my comfort zone, encouraging questions and breaking down complex concepts expertly, he also helped me build life skills and understand the broader context of what we were doing. Definitely one of the best classes I have taken at Rutgers. Challenging but so worth it.”

Professor Shah also rose to the challenge created by the pandemic-necessitated shift to remote instruction, using the disruption as an opportunity for innovation and creativity. He worked hard to ensure that students had access to the necessary computing and network resources, and meticulously pre-tested how the various tools the students would use performed when used in combination. Recognizing that students would likely feel isolated and drained by endless Zoom lectures, Professor Shah converted his in-class exercises to group problem-solving assignments. The students recognized and appreciated these efforts. As one student remarked, “Dr. Shah made the course very hands-on despite the challenges of online learning. Dr. Shah carefully balanced didactic instruction with collaborative problem-solving group work to reinforce the material discussed in lectures.” This course both serves an important curricular purpose for the department and provides students with a valuable and positive experience. As one student summarized, “I gained practical skills that are currently utilized at the forefront of modern research in genetics. I am confident that I will apply what Dr. Shah taught me in my future career, and thus cannot stress enough the value of this course in an undergraduate curriculum. I am certain that my eagerness to learn the material and my passion for it was further cultivated by Dr. Shah’s dedicated efforts.” Developing this course and redesigning pieces of it to be successful in the online environment during the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic make Professor Shah well-deserving of this award for his Distinguished Contribution to Undergraduate Education.

Mai Soliman, Assistant Teaching Professor (Office of Undergraduate Instruction)

Professor Mai Soliman has been one of the most valued instructors in the Rutgers Division of Life Sciences since joining the division in spring 2018. She teaches two large service courses— “Genetics” (01:447:380), and “General Microbiology” (01:447:390), both of which regularly enroll between 140 and 350 students and require effective coordination with other faculty members. Students consistently praise Professor Soliman’s teaching style in their course evaluations. As one student writes, “The professor has a very strong, positive attitude about the subject that makes the student want to learn too. She always attacks problems with a confident manner that eases a student and assures them that it is something that can be solved with patience and time. She is always available to students and does not stop teaching or emphasizing a point until she is sure that everyone understands it completely.” When asked what they liked most about the course, one student in “Genetics” in spring 2021 responded, “I had no interest in the content of the course and now I find myself looking up studies in genetics just for fun. I don’t think that would be the case if Professor Soliman didn’t show a genuine passion for the subject that pulls you in.”

During the pandemic-necessitated shift to online instruction, Professor Soliman effectively adopted many best practice pedagogical techniques including: recording all lectures and incorporating lecture quizzes into the recordings; adopting an online textbook with chapter assessments; holding (and recording) two weekly office hour sessions; effectively using the Canvas Module feature and homepage to clearly organize the course content and assignments, along with posting a “how to” video for students in March 2020; continuing to meet individually with students; and appropriately modifying exams for the online environment. Such strategies ensured clear communication with students and helped them to successfully engage with the course material and the instructor. Student feedback clearly indicates that such efforts were successful and appreciated. One particular student’s comments reflect and summarize the most prominent themes across the qualitative assessments of Professor Soliman’s teaching, “Genuinely one of the most enjoyable professors I have had. Organized class material perfectly for remote learning with pre-recorded lectures and synchronous lectures largely behaving as office hours. Excellent use of Canvas and online software. I always knew what I had to do and when it was due by examining the Canvas genetics home page which outlined a general agenda for each week. Professor Soliman was one of the most engaged professors I have had, always promptly responding to student emails and technical issues and very successfully tailoring lecture time to student questions and areas of inquiry. Professor Soliman also showed a great interest in class material, always providing anecdotes that made lectures and class time enjoyable and interesting.”

Given her considerable efforts to be accessible to students and to make her courses well-organized, clear, and engaging, it is not surprising that Professor Soliman is well-regarded among her colleagues for her excellence in teaching. She received the highest score possible in every category in a peer classroom observation, and the observer noted, “Really great teacher!! We need more like her.” This comment is reflective of the respect and appreciation that Professor Soliman has earned among students and faculty alike. Professor Soliman is well-deserving of this recognition and we are happy to present her with the SAS Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Education.

Gyu Ik (Daniel) Jung, Teaching Assistant

Mr. Gyu Ik (Daniel) Jung has served as the teaching assistant for Genetic Analysis I and Genetic Analysis II for the past two years (from Fall 2019 – Spring 2021). This intensive, two-semester course sequence is required of all Genetics majors during their first year in the major. Mr. Jung was selected for the TA position based on his experience in teaching science as well as his “gentle but confident disposition,” and has been an invaluable asset to the course instructors and students.

During his first year as a TA, he went above-and-beyond to be accessible and helpful for students—his office hours were well-attended, he offered additional study review sessions, he pre-tested exams, and he created power point summaries of recitation sections that were instrumental in helping students who struggled with the homework assignments. The department reports that students often preferred him over the professor! Students’ comments in the course evaluations reflect their appreciation for Mr. Jung’s approach, “I really liked Daniel and his approach to leading recitations and his help during office hours. During recitations, he had very good explanations for each question and was very patient with students if we had trouble understanding a certain topic.”

In Spring 2020, Mr. Jung was instrumental in successfully converting the course to an online format. His noteworthy commitment to providing the best experience possible for the students in the online environment continued throughout the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters. As the department writes, “By the time of Spring of 2021, Daniel knew more about Canvas than the professor. Daniel took over most tasks managing the online materials, such as homework, quizzes, exams, and recording lectures. That is, Daniel did so much more than run recitations. He was essential to every lecture and running the course.” Recognizing the importance of transparency in grading, particularly during such an uncertain and anxiety-provoking time for students, Mr. Jung also helped to create provisional grades throughout the semester to ensure that students clearly understood how they were performing in the course. Another statement by the department summarizes his essential contributions during this time, “Above all, Daniel’s most remarkable quality is his constant willingness to help while maintaining a calm demeanor even under pressure. Not only did he help with the transition and adjustments needed for keeping effective teaching remotely, but he was able to remain as the liaison with the students, to make them comfortable engaging with the instructors and then content, and enable the best educational experience possible.

”His excellence in connecting with and supporting students in the online environment is also clearly evident in the consistent praise students offered in their comments about Mr. Jung in the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 SIRS.As one student shared, “During both last semester and this one, Daniel has always been approachable and available, and I believe this helped us tremendously in learning and getting the most out of the virtual classes...For example, Daniel brought up questions or comments that were posted on the Zoom chat during lecture to make sure that the professor addressed it in context. He also clarified our confusions during lecture when we messaged him privately with questions because we did not feel comfortable ‘raising our hand’ or posting in the public chat…. Daniel’s willingness to help us beyond his office hours and the class time really helped with the difficulties of online classes and made the class easier to follow.”Mr. Jung’s commitment to effective pedagogical strategies, his ability to connect and effectively communicate with students, and his clear commitment to assisting and problem-solving under trying circumstances have made a truly Distinguished Contribution to Undergraduate Education.