Defying Standards and Stereotypes
By Mominah Subhan (UCLA, Los Angeles, CA)
Interviewee: Sharmila Venugopal (UCLA, Los Angeles, CA)
“Bless you!” Dr. Venugopal says as she hears a student sneeze across the room. Everyone including myself laughs as Dr. V smiles and continues with this week’s lesson on linear algebra. Most teachers don’t stop lecture for something like this, but Dr. V is the kind of teacher who does. Most would not expect a researcher in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology to be a professor of mathematics. Those are just some ways that Dr. Venugopal, or Dr. V as her students call her, goes against the grain and establishes herself as a unique individual.
Dr. V began her journey in the field of mathematics at a young age: “I always enjoyed math throughout high school, and when it came time to decide my focus in college, I chose to pursue the engineering”. She attended University of Visveswaraya College of Engineering in Bangalore, where she studied Electrical Engineering. Next, her passion for math took her to Ohio State University, where she originally planned to get her masters in engineering. Dr. V’s experiences here dramatically changed the trajectory of her career path, differentiating her from a typical engineering graduate. “During my first semester at Ohio State, I came across a flyer for a neuroscience lab looking to hire a research assistant to code and process data. Through this lab experience, I developed a deep appreciation for the widespread applications of neuroscience and how it can be integrated with many disciplines, including mathematics.” This experience led Dr. V to delve into the world of neuroscience, ultimately leading to a PhD in Neuroscience.
After getting her PhD at Ohio State, Dr. V came to UCLA for a postdoctoral degree and stayed to do research and teach. In a large lecture hall with over 200 people, it is common for a student to feel disconnected from the professor. Most professors in a large class don’t take questions during lecture or try creating a collaborative classroom; this is common at large research universities like UCLA. Dr. Venugopal disregards this widespread standard, answering questions and taking feedback from students throughout class, all while weaving practice problems into the lesson. She even takes time to learn the names of students, a tough task in a classroom with over 200 individuals. Through these practices, Dr. V has created a classroom where students are highly motivated to work together and celebrate each other’s victories; our class has a habit of clapping for each other when a question is answered correctly. In addition, unlike most math classes, student’s grades are not determined by a bell curve scheme. This uniquely makes Dr. V’s class systematically opposed to competitive and cutthroat behavior, creating a positive and growth-oriented environment.
One of Dr. V’s favorite parts about teaching is connecting with students and seeing them understand difficult math concepts: “I love when a concept clicks in the student’s brain and you can see the light bulb go off in their eyes.” She also enjoys getting to know students on a deeper level because “it makes the teaching experience so much more meaningful.”
Additionally, Dr. V credits her communication skills to her extensive teaching experience, saying that explaining complex topics repeatedly allows her to gauge what types of answers click with students.
Outside of doing research and teaching, Dr. V mentors and teaches high school students from underrepresented minorities through the VIP Scholars Program, an initiative focused to prepare students from underrepresented backgrounds for higher education. In this program, she teaches students interested in STEM careers about epidemiological math models, showing them how disease spreads within the body and within a population. Dr. V says that passionate students with a love of math and science inspire her and deepen her enjoyment for mentoring and cultivating the minds of the next generation.
One career moment that highlights Dr. V’s dedication in the face of challenging odds was at a conference hosted by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). She had been invited to present her research in computational biology through a poster presentation, but had mistakenly prepared a slideshow instead. Dr. V describes the stressful situation as she rushed to get her slides printed out: “I remember I had just flown in and was rushing to find an open FedEx; it was also hard because I had just had my baby and that was the first time I had gone away from him”. Despite all the obstacles she faced, Dr. V got to the presentation in time with her slides printed out on a poster, remembering that “I didn’t know it at that time, but the very first person who came to my poster was the judge of the contest.” Later on, Dr. V found out that she had won the poster presentation, in spite of the mix up and conflicts between rushing to the conference: “I was so elated when I found out.”
In many ways, Dr. V is the kind of teacher who goes against the norm set by those before her. She has integrated neuroscience and biology into mathematics in a unique way, making mathematical models in neuroscience research and teaching students calculus as applied to biological systems. She flies against the status quo set by college lecturers before, creating a collaborative and engaging classroom. She is one of the few women of color of her cultural background to reach high levels in research and academia. She has opened doors and broken glass ceilings as a researcher, professor, and mentor. As her student, she has truly inspired me and I know she will continue to inspire students for years to come.