U of T President's Teaching Award winner Aarthi Ashok talks about how she engages students

2020 U of T President's Teaching Award Winner Aarthi Ashok

Biology professor Aarthi Ashok recalls her first undergrad research experience, working in a dark basement lab, absorbed in clipping leaves from a rice plant and isolating chloroplasts. She always loved research, but thought “my rather focused area may not allow me to have the impact that I could have every time I walk into a classroom.”
Ashok, Professor, Teaching Stream, in U of T Scarborough’s Department of Biological Sciences, recently received a President’s Teaching Award – the highest honour for teaching at the University of Toronto. Below, Ashok – who is also Associate Chair, Teaching and Undergraduate Affairs, in Biological Sciences – talks about creating partnerships with students, mentorship and the strength in vulnerability.
What is your teaching philosophy?
I think of myself as part of a team. I’m learning with my students, because knowledge grows in this field every minute. The fact that I have more years of experience assimilating new information helps me lead the “team”, but students are no less a part of the scientific community.
I believe in a students-as-partners approach. I always want to hear what my students think about my teaching strategies, what their experience is and how it engages them, and I always use their feedback to improve.
What has been one of your most successful partnerships with your students?
I recently did a project where third-year biology students worked with art students to create an art piece to help the public understand a concept in biology. They created wonderful projects that we displayed in Gallery 1265 on campus. A graduate student TA, Trisha Mahtani, recommended that I collect students’ reflections on what they’d learned. Because of my scientific training, I prefer quantitative data. People writing things that I have to analyze leaves me a little shaky! Trisha really got me beyond that barrier, and it made a lot of sense. Until we reflect, we don’t understand what we truly got out of an experience.
We ended up analyzing those reflections, and publishing a paper on it as an example of interdisciplinary learning. Many students said that they’d learned so much about communicating with people outside of their discipline – and how art had so much in common with biology, like keen observation and ability to iteratively revise something to get to the final product. We would have never gotten any of that rich feedback without these reflections. I’m really thankful to Trisha, who is also lead author on the paper.
You are also a proponent of experiential learning opportunities. Why do you feel they are important to student learning?
Learning biology requires experiential learning in the lab, out in the field, etc.  But what I thought that we weren’t doing so well with – biologists in particular – is training students to communicate what they know from the discipline, to the public. I want to show students that as much as the discipline is experiential, communication about science to non-scientists is also a form of experiential learning.
I started a project two years ago called Biology in Schools. Student groups in my fourth-year class would create a workshop and deliver it in the community. Our partners were primarily high schools and public libraries in the local area. The project extended to the EarlyON and other community centres that provide important enrichment programming to underserved communities in Toronto, and a senior centre in Pickering where my students fielded from some tough questions from very well informed seniors on dementia and brain health.
It was an unbelievable learning experience for all of us. That’s a community outreach project that I call experiential learning, because students really understood what it meant to be an advocate for science, but also to listen and learn from others who often had very different lived experiences. That’s something I’m really proud of.
Can you talk about your journey to becoming a scientist and professor?
I certainly always loved research. I took a biology course in my first year at the University of Sheffield in England and was hooked. I had great professors that inspired me to be part of the field. I also had a research opportunity at the end of my first year, and was very lucky to basically hang around a lab for three years.
After that, I just followed my passions. I earned my PhD in cell and molecular biology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I worked on viruses and how they infect and move around inside cells. Then I decided, “Well, viruses are cool. But how about other things that move around inside cells, like our own proteins, when things go wrong in genetic diseases?” That was the theme of my post-doctoral research at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.
But I always thought that my rather focused area of research may not allow me to have the impact that I could have every time I walk into a classroom of 900 students in first year. I looked for ways to be involved in developing courses and teaching. My mentors were not always supportive of this goal. They constantly told me, “Why are you wasting time on teaching? Your research is good; just stick with the lab.”
But fortunately, I was able to identify others who encouraged me along the way: during my post-doc training at the National Institutes of Health, the Director of Education provided strong support for me to pitch a course and start teaching it.
Now, my primary interest area at UTSC is biology education. My classroom is my experiment! Right from first-year courses, I link our curiosity about disease conditions to our understanding of the basic molecules of life within our cells. I convey to students that we need to understand the nitty-gritty inside cells to really understand disease – because until we really understand those fundamental biology concepts, we can’t actually make any progress in clinical medicine.
You spoke about the role of mentoring in your life. Is mentoring – for young women in particular – important to you?
Absolutely. I think mentoring students from racialized groups that are under-represented in our field is an important goal. In my upper-level courses, I talk about how representation in the academy is not representative of the city that we live in. A lot of my students are very cognizant of that. It is really important to me that people see themselves as able to be part of the scientific community, that they feel that they belong.
One of my students told me, “I didn’t realize somebody that looked like me could be a professor. That didn’t actually occur to me until I took your course.” I find that it’s a huge responsibility to be a role model for someone else, but I think that it’s important work. In terms of what the teaching award allows me to do, I really hope I can make more of an impact in broadening access to our programs, especially undergraduate research, so we can work toward much better representation in academia.
Do you have advice for junior faculty on how to have a successful teaching practice or how to engage with students?
I think I’m only qualified to share experience. The thing that comes to mind is a quote: “Teaching is the ultimate experience in vulnerability.” Sometimes, based on some negative feedback or negative interactions, we close up and lose that vulnerability. I think that it’s so important to embrace it right from the beginning, and to not give it up. That’s the only way that you can remain true to who you are as an instructor, and to make that authentic connection with the students – when they can see the things that you may say are not perfect, and that you are OK to make some mistakes, then make a correction – with the ultimate goal of getting it right, instead of fixating on being flawless. 
I certainly have had the experience early on, where you feel like every word that you say has to be perfect, that any mistake is seen as a break in the armour, and now you’re under attack by 900 sets of eyes. I think feeling like it’s OK to be a human that makes mistakes and making room for vulnerability is a learned skill, but it’s ultimately so important.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
I get a lot of energy interacting with students. I love engaging with students during their first semester at university. It’s just spectacular to be part of that experience when they first arrive on campus.
As well, I have never taught a course in which I have not learned something new every time I teach it. It’s fascinating to me that I might teach the same numbered course on the same campus for years, and every time, there will be something new that I’ve learned and something new I’ve added to it that could be tweaked to be even better: an assignment, a lecture detail, an assessment question. I don’t know how many people get to do a job that’s never the same. That, to me, is just outstanding.    – Stacey Gibson