DR. SASWATI DAS, PHYSIOLOGY
When were you appointed at the University of Alberta and what are your reasons for choosing this university?
I started my current appointment in the Department of Physiology from 2011. Previously, I was involved primarily in research in different post-doctoral research associate positions.
I applied to universities in Canada for my graduate studies because the Canadian academic curriculum is an unique blend of the American and British system. Additionally the Canadian socio-political structure had many similarities with the British system. The transition to the Canadian system from my original background in India, where the academic curriculum is quite similar to the British system, was therefore, helpful in many ways.
Once I made the decision to move to Canada, I applied to several Canadian schools, but chose Edmonton because I found a suitable project that I liked and a supervisor who was willing to support and fund my research training.
What research experiences do you have?
I began my graduate research program as a neuroendocrinologist, but wanted to delve more into reproductive physiology. My first post-doctoral project involved research on cell signaling pathways in the ovary. When I returned to Edmonton, I participated in projects that had to do more with reproduction and neuroendocrinology. However, after a few years, I felt a gap in my knowledge. I started getting interested in immunology. At that time I worked with a professor in the pharmacy department who was working on cancer immunology. That really opened a new dimension for me. Instead of just looking at hormones and cell signaling, I was able to understand how cancer evolves, what happens during breast cancer, and study targeted treatment for cancer. I then moved on to pulmonary research where I studied nanoparticle-mediated inflammatory pathways. In the end, the most rewarding aspect for me was the experience that I gained from each research group. They were building blocks in my scientific and academic career, and each were formative and essential in their own way.
You have a strong history of teaching. What is a teaching strategy that you think is effective in teaching information dense courses like physiology?
Prior to teaching, I immersed myself into a research career. I found that besides doing research, it is equally important to make things understandable and clear for an audience. For instance, an objective that is clear and lacks ambiguity is important when presenting a scientific paper. While teaching, I learned that it is an ongoing learning process. With incremental and suitable changes the lecture material is delivered well. It’s also important to be conscious of the cues presented by students. If I feel that the class seems confused, I slow down and reinforce concepts. For instance, in physiology, I focus on two factors: thinking like students (putting myself in their shoes) and allowing students to understand that physiology is an interesting and relatable course (not just centered on memorizing).
How do you think we can encourage and inspire younger students to continue on their STEM education?
I believe that we should start encouraging them early (from elementary school years). With proper encouragement and early guidance, along with involvement in science projects, one can really propel students to move along this career path. Also, it’s important to be flexible and take up new challenges. For instance, at the university, there are many research opportunities available – students should take the time to explore these opportunities. They should also recognize that science is interconnected to other disciplines such as humanities and law and that is what makes science education satisfying.