Two Bond Life Sciences Center researchers find their path in teaching and research
By Mariah Cox | Bond LSC
As one semester closes and another begins, Sarah Unruh finds herself at the start of a new chapter of her life—this time at the front of the classroom. A newly appointed assistant professor at Illinois College, Unruh only had a handful of weeks to create syllabi, craft lesson plans and pack up her entire life to prepare for the start of classes on Jan. 14.
For Unruh, a recent Ph.D. graduate in biology in the Chris Pires lab, the quick turnaround and placement at Illinois College was somewhat serendipitous in her career timeline. Throughout her doctoral program, Unruh always thought her next step would be a postdoctoral fellowship.
“Toward the end of my Ph.D. I really could have taken a little bit more time, but my collaborator emails me out of the blue with a job that might be interesting if the timing works,” Unruh said. “There was no mention of where it was just a link to the application.”
So, Unruh took the leap and applied for the position this past February. And, get this—it was the only thing she applied for post-graduation.
Although the college was looking to fill a faculty gap for the fall semester, her connection with a colleague allowed time for her to finish her degree and begin the position in the spring. After an arduous application and multi-step interview process, Unruh is pleasantly surprised about the opportunity before her and is looking forward to becoming an established faculty member in her new home.
During her doctoral program, Unruh taught labs through assistantships for a handful of classes including plant systematics, genetics and botany. While many of Mizzou’s classes can often enroll more than 100 students, she fell in love with the small classes that science labs afford.
“When I applied, I really liked the idea of a smaller school and being able to invest in students in a smaller classroom setting,” Unruh said. “When I was a TA, my role was facilitating the lab based on content provided by the professor. However, for plant systematics, I had to come up with the writing-intensive curriculum and that was a really good experience. In addition to working with the students, I was able to critically think about what makes a good assignment and what I wanted them to learn.”
Unruh is not a tenure track faculty yet, but she hopes to covert to tenure track within the next couple of years. In the spring she will teach molecular cell biology and introductory biology, each with a lab. Additionally, she will have her own research lab that will study the interaction between mycorrhizal fungi and endangered orchid species.
Illinois College is an undergraduate institution that heavily encourages students to participate in research opportunities. With her experience mentoring student researchers in the Pires lab, Unruh is especially excited about that aspect of her position.
“The relationships I’ve really forged [here at Mizzou] have been with the students that come to the lab,” Unruh said. “Through my teaching assistantships, I really liked and do still like interacting with the students.”
For Unruh and many other students like her, her discovery of research scientist and professor as a career path is backed by a long list of experiences and steppingstones that directed her path. Unruh knew she wanted to teach the summer after her freshman year of high school when she became a volunteer and then camp counselor at the St. Louis Zoo, a position she stayed at for seven summers.
“That was where I fell in love with education as something I could do, and not only liked it, but realized I wanted to do that and was good at it,” Unruh said. “It was a space where I came into my voice a little bit because I’m definitely an introvert, but there you have to learn how to get kids excited and be really loud and present.”
From there, her research in the Pires lab solidified her desire to become a professor, rather than teach K-12.
Unruh is not alone in pursuing teaching opportunities after earning a Ph.D.
Current Bond LSC researcher Vinit Shanbhag is also on the path to soon step into a research scientist and professor role. In 2018, Shanbhag was selected for the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) Program, a one-year program that seeks to prepare doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars for future faculty roles and job expectations.
Through the program, Shanbhag was able to be an independent instructor for undergraduate-level biochemistry courses. Other aspects of the program included continuing research in Michael Petris’ lab and engaging in professional development opportunities. This highly competitive fellowship program accepts only four fellows from applicants worldwide.
“After my fellowship, I’m leaning toward an academic rather than an industry position. With tenure track faculty positions, there’s a teaching requirement. The program helped increase my confidence in my teaching skills,” Shanbhag said.
After finishing up his current research project in the Petris lab, Shanbhag is looking forward to applying to an R1 or R2 institution and setting up his own lab with the goal of continuing his research on copper and cancer.
“The fellowship was great. Especially being an international fellow, I wasn’t sure whether my students could understand my English,” Shanbhag sad. “I got good reviews from the students so that allowed me to analyze what I was doing right and what I could improve on.”
From various volunteering, teaching, fellowship or research experiences, the path to becoming a research professor looks different for everyone. But one thing’s for certain—they’re all invested in contributing to science and inspiring the next generation to do so as well.