Brain and Body

Job Spotlight: Could you see Yourself as a Professor?

September 9, 2016 | Kathryn Loydall

Professor Mala Misra, Professor of Biology at Colgate University
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Professor Mala Misra

As part of our Job Spotlight series, we talked to Professor Mala Misra, a Visiting Professor of Biology at Colgate University in Upstate New York.

Mala Misra is a Visiting Professor of Biology at Colgate University in Upstate New York. Like many professors, she didn’t initially set out to become one, but events that happened along her career path led her to where she is now.  She talked to The Science Explorer about how she figured out that combining teaching with research was right for her, and discussed some of the important lessons that she learned along the way.

A day in the life of a Professor at Colgate

On a typical day, Misra gets to campus around 8:30AM.  “I usually teach during the first half of the day.  In the afternoons, I’m either meeting with students or working in the lab.  Sometimes I can squeeze in a bit of reading, grading, and lesson-planning, but those things usually end up being homework.”

Her teaching duties are diverse: “I teach introductory level and advanced undergraduate courses in molecular biology and genetics.  I also teach a course for non-majors called ‘Cells and Human Development’, in which we discuss topics of general interest relating to stem cells, cloning, gene therapy, and maternal-fetal health.  In addition to teaching, I work with undergraduate students in a research lab.  We use the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model system to study how neurons (the cells that make up the nervous system) grow into their complex shapes and how these shapes determine their function.”

Why teaching?

Mala was in the middle of her postdoctoral research when she came to two important realizations: “First, I realized that I am a ‘people person’; that is, I actually enjoy talking to people and hearing their stories.  Teaching and working at a liberal arts college gives me an opportunity to get to know a very diverse and interesting group of people, so this job is a good fit in that respect.”

Second, she goes on to tell us, she found that working full-time in the lab was giving her tunnel vision. That is, she felt like she fell into a trap of thinking about the same questions in the same ways, day after day, and lost sight of why those questions even needed to be answered in the first place.

“This wasn’t a great feeling,” Mala explains. So she looked for a career path that would allow her to spend more time thinking about the big picture. “Combining research with teaching seems to be my happy medium,” Misra says.

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How did you get to where you are now?

Mala says her career path was pretty traditional: “I went to college at the University of Virginia, where I earned a B.S. in Biology and completed a second major in History for kicks.  Then I went straight to grad school at the University of Pittsburgh.  I finished my PhD in Neurobiology in 2009 and started a postdoc at in the Molecular Biology department at Princeton the next year.  Four years later, I applied for my current job at Colgate.  I’m a “Visiting” Assistant Professor, which means I’m only here for a short time.”

When asked what the biggest challenge in her career transition was, Mala says: “The biggest challenge, as you might expect, has been learning how to teach effectively. At first, I struggled just to remember the content of a lecture.  Now, I struggle with figuring out the best ways to deliver that content so that everyone in the classroom has a fair chance of understanding it.  My teaching is a work in progress.”

On how her prior experience in Academia has helped her in her career transition, Mala says: “I think being able to read carefully and distill information from multiple sources is the most valuable skill I picked up from my training. I need to do this for my classes every day. Also, having a basic sense of how to design Powerpoint / Keynote presentations that aren’t absolute torture for your audience has turned out to be a very useful skill.”

And she tells us that writing grant proposals and papers is still very important for faculty at liberal arts schools.  “In addition to these things, teaching evaluations from students and colleagues play a role in tenure and promotion decisions, etc.  As a visiting faculty member, however, I haven’t had to worry too much about that yet.”

When asked what her greatest accomplishment has been so far, Mala tells us: “This is a really tough question! As scientists, we’re trained to view everything with a critical eye.  It’s difficult to think of a time when I really felt satisfied with something I had done. I can say I’m a bit proud that I was able to see through a long-term project that others thought was a lost cause.  Looking back, I think I showed a lot of grit.”

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Advice for making a career transition into teaching?

For those considering transitioning into teaching, Mala recommends taking a short-term teaching job to find out if you like it. “There are a number of options: adjuncting, 1-2 semester visiting positions, or multi-year visiting positions.”

“Based on my experiences so far, teaching requires a lot of studying.  Train yourself to be a good learner.  Also, practice.  Take advantage of opportunities to tutor other students, for example.”

Mala’s best tip? “Be proactive in exploring your options.  Take advantage of internships, short-term positions, and job-shadowing opportunities. Well-informed decisions tend to be the best decisions.”

Other advice? When she was starting her career, Mala wishes she’d been advised to not rush into graduate school, and to spend some time pursuing other goals for a year or two before making the leap. “I was very immature when I started grad school because I hadn’t had any experiences in the ‘real world.’”

Her next steps?

“My next step is (hopefully) finding a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college. My experiences over the last few years have convinced me that this is a great career choice for me.  I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to test drive it first!”

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