College of Engineering Dean Janet Callahan has selected Smitha Rao, assistant professor in Biomedical Engineering, as our eighth spring 2021 Deans’ Teaching Showcase member.
Rao was selected for her extensive recruiting and supervision of undergraduates in student research. She has four to five undergraduate students each year that she mentors in her lab. Three of her students have won the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) Award and she has participated in the Undergraduate Research Internship Program (URIP) six times. Both of these programs run out of the Pavlis Honors College.
Her approach to mentoring in her words is that she wants students to seek and gain a sense of accomplishment and ownership, to develop confidence in their own abilities, and — in the process — contribute to science. She likes to get undergraduates involved in topics that are of interest to them, so their efforts take on a deeper personal meaning. She sees mentoring undergraduate students as an opportunity to train the next generation of engineers while honing her own skills.
The results? Rao’s description of her work speaks for itself: “Out of the 20 plus students that I directly mentored either as an advisor or as an instructor, about 10 are in graduate school. One student from my lab was recently offered a full fellowship to pursue a PhD at a different university. I typically have about four to five undergraduate students each semester. However, this year I have 9 undergrad students (freshman through senior).”
Rao’s mentoring does not stop at just teaching them fundamental lab skills. She encourages them to participate in different events from competitions to conferences, provides them information relevant to their own interests, and continues to offer guidance as they gain independence in their own research projects. Many of them become co-authors on papers describing the research they help with and some have stayed on for graduate school. Several of her undergraduate students continue to remain in touch with her even after they graduated. She often discusses with students their future goals and expectations, offering them information about different ways to define and achieve success. Most importantly, she encourages leadership and independence. Students are encouraged to explore their interests, invest time and effort in their work, mentor others and enjoy their work.
She extends this approach to her teaching as well, peppering students with difficult challenges, coaxing responses, and sharing a laugh with over-the-top examples used to illustrate a point. In one student’s words, “When starting the Biomedical Engineering program in 2014, I was not expecting to build a relationship with any of the professors in the department. That all changed in the fall of 2016 when I took one of Dr. Rao’s classes. From there, so many doors of opportunity were opened for me just by reaching out to Dr. Rao. I was fortunate enough to work alongside her in her research lab gaining incredible experience in research. She was one of the most enthusiastic professors I had during my time at Michigan Tech and I attribute a lot of my success thus far to her guidance. During my last year, Dr. Rao helped revamp my resume, prepare me for interviews, and was excited to be a part of the process of helping me start my career. I will never forget when I got the call of being offered my dream job during a meeting with her and she was jumping up and down just as much as I was. Dr. Rao is truly a one-of-a-kind professor and person, I am so honored and thankful to have worked with her and continue to connect with her.”
A second student agrees that Rao’s mentoring extends to the classroom, saying “Dr. Rao’s mentorship of undergraduate students has been exemplary, giving students hands-on experience at applying exactly what they are learning in class towards solving real-world problems related to improving human health. Meaningful undergraduate research is part of the culture in our department and Dr. Rao has certainly promoted this important piece in the education of the next generation of engineers and scientists.”
Dean Callahan’s choice especially valued how seriously Rao takes mentoring. In her words, “Dr. Rao’s emphasis on hands-on science is inspirational. And in the classroom, she is well-known for engaging students with their learning. Working with students is her passion.”
Rao will be recognized at an end-of-term event with other showcase members, and is also a candidate for the CTL Instructional Award Series (to be determined this summer) recognizing introductory or large-class teaching, innovative or outside the classroom teaching methods, or work in curriculum and assessment.
By Michael R. Meyer, William G. Jackson CTL.