This interview of Dr. Sumali is for students and professors of any and every field. She talks about the relevance of active learning, and discusses the importance of pursing your passion. She believes that science is an attitude, and her classroom should breed that attitude.
1. You’re a professor in the Biosciences department of Minnesota State University. Tell us about your responsibilities and experience so far.
As a part of my job, I do three things: teaching, research and advising. So, teaching means I teach courses and labs, research includes labs, doing experiments, writing grants, helping students write grants, analyzing data, writing conference papers, etc. Advising, since I’m a faculty and it’s unique to our department, I have around 20 advisees. Every semester they meet me for around half an hour to decide their courses, to ensure it aligns with their interest and goals. As an advisor we help they take the right courses and address their struggles.
2. As a designer of many Biosciences courses, what do you primarily focus on and how do you ensure your students are up-to-date, interested and interactive?
As a teacher from the newer generation, our pedagogical approaches have changed. Moreover, with the online environment it’s become very different. My go-to approach has been very hands-on. I think hands and brain go together. So, if I have a lab in my course, I make my students do things on their own. Even for lecture-based class, I try using active learning strategies, so that my students give back to me. Then of course, content is important… I teach Immunology which requires you to be very up-to-date. For example, with covid-19, even basic knowledge is very important. I believe concepts stay at Undergraduate level.
3. Tell us something about your research in immunology. What kind of projects have you mentored?
I primarily work on allergic asthma for my lab-work. I work with a model of Aspergillus fumigatus. It’s available in the environment, everybody inhales it but there is a subset of the population who get affected by the inhalation of the spores. So, if they do not have a robost immune system, it takes over their body and can be fatal. It’s very common in ICU settings, canvcer patients or HIV patients. There’s another subset where you are not immunocompromised but you are still sensitive to these spores, so an allergic reaction. This presents a lot of problem in these people as fungal asthma is very severe. We have a mouse model in the lab where we look at immune response and structural changes in the model, so a lot of my mentoring goes in that. I also work with cell culture projects, following within the realms of environmental exposures and immune response to that. Then in microbiology, I work on antibiotic resistance type projects…quite a variety. I also do education research, so I look for strategies to improve our teaching methods. We look for data to see if we implement a change in our approach, is it actually working.
4. You urge students to be “focused”. What do you recommend students to do in order to identify their interests and develop skills required in that field?
I have seen a variety of students. There are students from the very beginning, who know the path they want to follow. They are pretty clear-headed and will ask me very specific questions. Others need a little more help. So I get to spend a lot of time with my research students, and I understand their interests by listening to them and watching their behavior. Many say they love lab-work, but when they do it, their heart is not at it. So, I try to explore further to see what they enjoy. They’re my friends, my collaborators, so I deal with that perspective.
5. How important are publications for an undergraduate student from Life Sciences and Bioscience field? Is the relevance of a project judged from the publication behind it?
For Undergraduate research, it shows the commitment to their project. If an Undergrad student gets a publication, it means they were involved in that project enough to bring it to that point. It depends on what are you looking for. If you are looking for an Undergraduate student who wants to go in research, yes. If it’s a student who wants to do something in a professional setting, then not as much. At any point, a publication is a good thing. For a faculty member, our expectation is not to publish, our expectation is to engage them. If we get to that point though, we all strive for it, because we know the value of it. The other constraint with Undergraduate research is unlike PhD and Masters research, they are not bound to stay until research is completed. So, the 4-year turnover is very rapid.
6. What are your expectations from students entering your class, and how do you equip them to make a productive career?
Most important thing that I look for is, show up. Even if you don’t know how to do a particular thing, show up and we’ll work on it. I equate it to having an artist canvas in a workshop. If you want to paint something, even if you don’t know what to, you will only be able to do it by actually going to the workshop. I make them do a lot of reflections, to see if they’ve achieved their short- and long-term goals.
7. What are your future plans? How do you think you can contribute further to promote our field? Is there anyway you can help Indian students to get more application-based knowledge and opportunities in Biosciences?
I have a strong feeling for this. When I was a pharmacy student, and our second half of the day were planned for labs. Many times, they were good labs, but sometimes they weren’t. Like for microbiology we didn’t have water to do labs for the entire semester. I feel that’s where we need to be more creative and innovative. Because if we don’t have labs and a hands-on way to learn, get out in the community. Look for a problem to solve and by being a bit savvier you can figure out a solution to it. For example, microbiology is everywhere.