To many, learning about evolution, natural selection, and the specifics behind genetics may not seem very interesting, but with UTM’s Fiona Rawle, it’s an entirely different story.

“Her lectures are very engaging and interactive,” says Fatima Alvi, a second-year biology specialist. “She knows how to teach and engrave knowledge in a student using innovative techniques.”

Asma Fadhl, a second-year biology major, has yet to take an entire course with Rawle, but has crashed a few lectures in the past to get a sense of why Rawle is so well-loved. “I wasn’t a student in her class, yet I was paying full attention to what she was teaching,” comments Fadhl. “She also tries to remember students’ names despite the class size being huge—something very rare—and I found that to be very [engaging and] it creates a very nice in-class student-prof relationship.”

What some students find distinctive about Rawle’s teaching style is her level of commitment. Rawle was one of the few professors who sacrificed her evenings to hold video sessions with 500-student classes to answer last-minute questions on the night before a midterm.

Glowing student reviews like these may help explain why Rawle was recently awarded an Early Career Teaching Award. The U of T award recognizes Rawle’s technology-enhanced learning, innovation, and commitment to teaching.

With a PhD in Pathology and Molecular Medicine from Queen’s University, Rawle had left university thinking that she would like to pursue a career in science. “I knew that I would be doing something in science… but [I] didn’t anticipate everything else that has happened,” she says.

Originally from the West, Rawle married a Torontonian and chose to stay in Ontario. “I can’t think of a better place to work than UTM, with its diverse student population, the genuine support it gives to faculty interested in teaching, and its fantastic natural setting,” says Rawle.

Currently on leave, Rawle misses teaching and seeing her students grow and develop as they move through university.

Despite being on leave, Rawle is continuing to focus on her research and is currently working alongside ROP students on various projects. “I’m interested in the best ways to teach and learn science. I think that our teaching should be evidence-based… which means that we teach in ways that have been shown to be effective,” she says. “Specifically, I have a research project right now that is looking at student misconceptions about antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and another project that looks at using animations to overcome student misconceptions in genetics.”

Fathiya Mohamed, a third-year biology specialist and psychology minor, is the ROP student who is currently exploring how to eliminate student misconceptions about antibiotics resistance.

“Infections that used to kill people hundreds of years ago, that were treated, are now coming back, and many students don’t realize that it is not that the bacteria are building resistance by themselves,” says Mohamed. “Many students do not understand that we actually play a big role in contributing to this resistance by not using antibiotics judiciously.”

“You can see how incredibly passionate [Rawle] is about teaching, and she truly believes that every student has the potential to learn and understand the material, and that it is all dependent on the teaching method,” she adds. “I really look up to her as my inspiration in life.”

Jonathan Hersh, a fourth-year chemistry specialist, is currently exploring the academic outcomes of those students who take part in first-year transition programs through his ROP project with Rawle. He adds to Mohamed’s comment, saying that Rawle’s humility is commendable, and that she inspires “many students” to work with her.

Approaching professors is never an easy task, but Rawle believes that sincerity is the key to such conversations. “It is okay to be totally open with that professor. You can say that you are excited to meet them, and nervous too. Just say that you want to introduce yourself and that you are looking forward to their class,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be a long conversation—just keep it genuine.

“Professors genuinely care about their students […] and they genuinely want you to come to their office hours. I think sometimes students don’t want to disturb us, but we are there to answer your questions […] so please ask away,” she added.

When asked what she loves most about her job, Rawle replies that her students are one of the highlights. She says, “I learn just as much from [my students] as I hope they do from me.”

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