“If we involve our students in our research, research is teaching.”
These are the words of Dr. Nadja Cech, professor of chemistry at UNC Greensboro and 2022 recipient of the University of North Carolina Board of Governor’s Excellence in Teaching Award. The award, given to one faculty member at each of the 17 UNC System institutions, recognizes outstanding teaching that has resulted in the advancement of the profession. It is the highest post-secondary award in the state and honors exceptional teachers who have extended their pedagogical activities beyond the classroom.
Dr. Cech is Patricia A. Sullivan Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UNCG and has been on the faculty since 2001. In addition to teaching in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, she supervises a group of 14 undergraduates, graduate students, and post-doctoral research associates in her lab. Inspired by molecules from plants, fungi, and bacteria, the Cech Research Group seeks to discover new treatments for infectious disease. This work has been funded for nearly two decades by the National Institutes of Health.
Cech is a champion of scientists from diverse backgrounds, and believes that the diversity of her research group has been a key element to the success of her research projects. She has made it a priority to secure research funding to support students who might otherwise be unable to participate in research because of financial constraints. Cech is a leader in promoting multi- and cross- disciplinary projects, and creates opportunities for students to cultivate curiosity and research networks outside the laboratory. She takes her students to research conferences and excursions focused on native plants and their uses, and spearheaded the design and implementation of a freshman seminar program designed to support and retain students interested in pursuing careers in chemistry and biochemistry.
“Again and again, my students told me that undergraduate research was what really made them want to become scientists,” says Cech. “In the laboratory, students collect their own data, solve real life problems, troubleshoot, work together, and become part of a community. We know how critical a sense of belonging and purpose is to success in education. Engagement in a research project is just the thing to accomplish that.”
Chemistry and Biochemistry Department Head Dr. Mitch Croatt shared about Cech, “Nadja is one of the best and most innovative teachers in our department. A common misconception is that faculty must choose between being excellent researchers or teachers, but Dr. Cech shows this to be a false dichotomy. Instead, Dr. Cech is an outstanding example of how teaching and research can be synergistic in nature. While maintaining her status as a nationally competitive researcher, she is consistently rated as one of the department’s best teachers. Part of the reason for this is that she blurs the line between teaching and research. She brings concepts from her research lab into the classroom and also is involved with research on how to be a better teacher… What really makes Nadja stand out as an educator is her eagerness to try new approaches in the classroom and her friendly conversational and enthusiastic style that makes students comfortable with learning. She draws on her broad understanding of many areas of science, but also uses a variety of ideas about how to teach more effectively. “
In the classroom, Cech is anything but typical. One of her favorite strategies in teaching is, as she says, “to ask some questions for which there is no right answer.”
“We scientists often fall into thinking that all knowledge must fit in the category of right or wrong. ‘How many bonds does this molecule make? Which functional group is most acidic?’ Nobody wants to answer a question like that unless they know the answer! However, if I get the students talking about their experiences, their aspirations, and their perspectives, suddenly everyone is involved. Most importantly, I try to create a culture in the class where students feel safe to participate. I find value in anything that a student shares with the class, even if it’s not factually ‘right.’ When students do give wrong answers, I ask them to explain their thinking, tell them it’s a good start, and ask others to build on what they have said.”
Students and colleagues shared the following reflections about Cech’s teaching:
“Dr. Cech excels especially at teaching her students how to communicate science in an accessible way. Science is not a random set of formulas to be memorized and forgotten, but rather, science is a lens through which we view and understand the world. We have opportunities not only to engage with other chemists in our field, but to communicate our research to people outside of the field of science. Many find science intimidating, but if communicated properly, it is exciting, gritty, and relatable. Dr. Cech is constantly reminding us that science is built upon negative results, upon failures, and that the most important thing is to support one another, learn from negative results, and come up with better questions. It’s okay to fail – in fact, it is essential. We often play improv games before our group meetings, which helps us to let go of our ideas of perfection and grow closer to one another. I am grateful to be in this laboratory because I have had the opportunity to communicate my science to a diverse range of audiences, mentor students of my own, and develop into an independent scientist.”
– Ph.D candidate in medicinal biochemistry Lindsay Caesar
“Dr. Cech cares deeply about teaching, and her welcoming personality radiates when she works with students. She employs the “yes, and…” improvisational tool while conducting a discussion to boost students’ confidence. While the “yes, and…” method is typically used in theater improv to help actors create improvised narratives, it allows Dr. Cech to build on students’ comments and create more in-depth conversations, while also encouraging them to speak up and create knowledge together. Finally, Dr. Cech’s naturally warm-hearted and generous personality makes her a wonderful teacher and mentor. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from Dr. Cech. She is without question one of my favorite people on UNCG’s campus. Every time I see her, she greets me with a huge smile and hug, and she consistently vocalizes her appreciation of my work when I act as her teaching assistant. As a female graduate student, I look up to Dr. Cech and hope to emulate her professionalism and passion for both her subject and teaching.”
-Ph.D candidate in history, Justina Lacata
“When it comes to teaching, I believe Professor Cech represents the best of who we are as a campus. She demonstrates this in her exemplary day-to-day actions, her strong teaching record, and ever-enthusiastic commitment to students. Anyone who has seen her in a classroom or in another setting with students is immediately struck by her openness and interest in all of our students.
Whether she is discussing analytical chemistry or solving quadratic equations on the board, raising philosophical questions, or enjoining her students to think about ways of thinking about science, history, and society, she makes learning enjoyable and challenging.
In sum, the mark of an excellent teacher is their ability to pique their students’ interests, inspire their creativity and systematic inquiry, and take their students to new heights. Professor Cech does this by inviting her students to become scientists with her, to be philosophical, and to be humane – that is, to try new things and become ever-better at what they want to become and do so with kindness and compassion.”
-Dean of the Lloyd International Honors College Omar Ali