Inside USD

Teaching, Research Collaboration is JUST Right

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

koudelkaheadshotKris Koudelka was more than a year away from earning his Ph.D. in biology at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla when, unbeknownst to him, the creation of a path to his professional future was a topic of discussion.

Casual conversation between University of San Diego associate professor Debbie Tahmassebi and Jamie Williamson, TSRI’s associate dean of graduate studies, took place while Tahmassebi was working in a TSRI laboratory during a sabbatical in 2006-07.

Tahmassebi said USD’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry had been working on a five-year development plan, a process that eventually netted USD a department development award in 2008. Among the department’s brainstorming ideas, Tahmassebi said, was finding opportunities to connect postdoctoral students with USD’s undergraduate students and programs.

“We thought about different models and ways to strengthen our relationships with other institutions,” Tahmassebi said.

TSRI was an ideal partner, Tahmassebi said, because several USD professors have worked with the renowned research institute during their sabbaticals and also because TSRI doesn’t have an undergraduate program.

The conversation between Tahmassebi and Williamson focused on matching the strengths of their respective organizations into a dynamic partnership for postdoctoral science students interested in teaching at the undergraduate level.

Those conversations turned serious and, in 2007, the Joint USD-Scripps Training (JUST) program was born. A postdoctoral student from TSRI now has the opportunity to gain mentored classroom teaching experience with undergraduate research students at USD. The JUST recipient works on his or her research at TSRI simultaneously, and there’s potential for USD students to be exposed to TSRI’s graduate program.

It’s the best of both worlds for Koudelka (pictured at top), 28, the recipient of a two-year JUST Fellowship, made possible by a grant from Fletcher Jones Foundation that runs through 2010.

“It’s a complete blast,” Koudelka said of his USD teaching experience. “I get to talk about science all day, and I really see the research as an extension of teaching. The research can be cutting-edge and fun, but it’s an opportunity to train students. The interaction is what I love. It’s something special to pass along some knowledge. The students are immensely talented, and they can probably do things I’ll never be capable of doing. Watching their personal growth is very rewarding.”

Koudelka started Aug. 1 at USD, two months after completing his Ph.D. He team-taught Chemistry 151, a general chemistry course, with his assigned mentor, USD professor Jeremy Kua, last fall. Koudelka is the instructor of record for Chemistry 103: DNA Science and Technology this semester.

“It’s been a really good opportunity,” Koudelka said. “This experience is invaluable because a lot of times, you’re not thrown into that actual position until you’re starting a job. It’s great to have the (teaching) experience already. It prepares me for a future position and, at the same time, I’m mentored on what I can do to get better.”

Kua, a professor in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department since 2002, calls JUST a “pioneering” program and says he has enjoyed working closely with Koudelka.

Kua said Koudelka is enthusiastic, is very organized with the materials and has improved on how he explains the class material to students. “He’s much better thinking on his feet, a lot more fluid.”

Koudelka, a Wisconsin native and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, has lived in San Diego since 2004, when he started his Ph.D. “I only knew it as the school on the hill,” he said of his limited knowledge of USD at that time. “I didn’t have any detailed knowledge of its programs, but people here (at TSRI) said it had a very good reputation. I knew it was a private Catholic university and everyone held it in high regard.”

Nearly one full school year into his teaching stint, Koudelka sees the benefits of being at USD. “I absolutely love it there. Going through my own undergraduate program and seeing it at other places, I’ve really found that at a private institution there are a lot of opportunities that aren’t normally available to other students. It’s a great fit. It allows me to teach. The students really get to learn. It’s very open, and the small classes are great. I would love to teach at a similar institution at any point of my career.”

Another mutual benefit for the JUST program will occur this summer. Koudelka will be selecting USD students to join him at TSRI to work on research projects. The students will have access to an institution whose graduate programs in biology and chemistry are annually ranked among the best. It is to the students’ advantage to capitalize on this unique access to Koudelka.

“I just graduated about a year ago so I can really tell those students who are wanting to go into graduate studies what they can expect and how they should prepare for it,” he said. “Being that close enables me to offer them an interesting mentoring opportunity.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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