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Statement to Curtis Award Committee

It is my firm belief that teaching and learning should both be fun and life-long processes. I entered graduate school with the intent of pursuing the same career trajectory I had observed in my mentors over the last four years, running a lab and focusing on the formal training of undergraduate scientists. As I began to take more ownership of my own research, and to really understand it, I wanted to share what I was learning, and the excitement I felt with being on the forefront of discovery, with other people without the restrictions of a formal classroom setting. I have exposed myself to as many opportunities as possible in my tenure at the University so far, and have learned about the many different ways of communicating science, but they all come down to the enthusiasm of the presenter, and the ability to engage the audience.  I first observed the influence of informal science education as a child growing up on a steady stream of Bill Nye the Science Guy and Science Channel specials. More than the actual content, I remember a feeling of awe and a desire to know more, which inspired me to do my own research in the reference books at the library and by asking questions of the adults around me. These videos and books instilled in me an early love of science and learning that I have carried with me as I grew up and moved on to higher education.

In my undergraduate career I started teaching when I was invited to become a peer mentor to introductory chemistry students. This peer mentoring program, called Peer-Led Team Learning, was less of a recitation or lecture based learning environment, but a problem based group activity that encouraged students and the student mentors to figure out the concepts and answers on their own. This team based learning technique was beneficial for the students because there was no answer key, and it encouraged them to learn by asking questions and working in teams. For a topic as challenging as chemistry, this worked very well. As a group leader, I not only learned more about chemistry, but about how the mentality of the individual is integral to their ability to learn.

When I decided to pursue a Ph.D., I partially based my decision on which school had the option to become a Teacher’s Assistant because I considered it an integral part of my education. As a TA for the undergraduate Neuroscience lab I had the opportunity to give a lecture, but the one-on-one time interacting with students and trying to guide them through the lab activities was far more enjoyable to me. Helping the students to come to their own answers not only helped them to have a better understanding of the class material, but added to their own self-confidence because no one gave them the answer. I have tried to apply the same process and principles to working with undergraduate research assistants in my own lab, helping them to survey the literature for experimental design and letting them master the techniques on their own. One of my more successful students has gone on to start her own project, and it is especially rewarding to me when she comes to me for help and I am able to ask her the right questions to get her to her own answers. It is obvious that she has a better grasp of the science and the rationale behind her work because she is able to come to her own answers and she enjoys what she does.

While working with undergraduates and seeing them succeed is rewarding, my involvement with Informal Science Education has become a true passion for me. I first heard the term when I attended a UR Best career day where the director of the Rochester Museum and Science Center, Daniel Menelly, discussed his history of making science fun for kids by turning it into a game. This was very similar to the concepts we had

applied in the Brain Awareness Campaign that I had helped to start during my first year as a graduate student. In Brain Awareness Campaign planning we developed activities for children in grades K-3 to teach them about the brain. We focused on hands-on tasks that would encourage the children to fully immerse themselves in the activities and hopefully leave them with the feeling that learning about the brain was something fun that they would like to continue. It is my belief that we have been successful in this goal, and feedback from teachers suggests they feel this way as well.

I think that learning, and specifically science learning should be a life-long process. As a part of a class on science communication I helped to organize a group of Ph.D. students to meet with patrons of a bar to discuss our work. This was a fun and successful trip where we interacted with people from a wide variety of backgrounds who all ended up learning something about ongoing research at the University of Rochester. We got such good feedback from student participants and the people we met that I decided to make this a regular event. I am actively seeking funding opportunities to get this program up and running and I am sure that when it comes online it will be a great opportunity for teaching graduate students to improve their communication skills, and for the community to learn more about current science.

Learning has been a huge part of my life, and I owe my enthusiasm for science to the teachers and professors who were able to distill complicated concepts and make it fun for me to learn. I have benefitted hugely from their dedication to the process and it is important for me to pay it forward by making science fun for others. I have worked on committees dedicated to informal science education, as well as been involved in traditional teaching experiences. I have been a founding member of the Brain Awareness Campaign as well as gone out on my own to start programming for adults. It is my hope that both of these programs will be able to show people that science is fun, and inspire them to keep learning.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Heather Natola