Abha Ahuja, Assistant Professor at education startup Minerva Schools, finds that her identity as a woman of Indian origin in STEM helps her relate to her diverse students. Her postdoctoral training prepared her to design active learning courses on a new technology platform.
In the Decoding Life series, we talk to geneticists with diverse career paths, tracing the many directions possible after research training. This series is brought to you by the GSA Early Career Scientist Career Development Subcommittee.
Abha Ahuja’s mentors encouraged her to pursue her interest in teaching. Through the Harvard Medical School’s Curriculum Fellows Program, she studied active learning pedagogy and taught in a wide variety of settings. These experiences helped Abha in her role as a founding faculty member of the Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute: a university program that uses cutting-edge technology to provide students with a unique, international, and accessible education. Abha’s international experience, completing a BS at the University of Delhi in India, PhD at the McMaster University in Canada and Postdoc at Harvard University in the USA, and her identity as an Indian woman in STEM have inspired her passion for providing opportunities to students from diverse backgrounds.
What interested you in a career in undergraduate education?
I’ve always gravitated towards teaching positions. I enjoy engaging with young people and participating in their process of learning and growth. Developing lessons and teaching are very fulfilling for me creatively, and they fit well with my personality. The wealth of literature on effective teaching and the numerous opportunities that exist to conduct research on teaching and learning fulfill the scientist part of me, as well. My postdoc advisor Cassandra Extavour encouraged me to explore different teaching opportunities and that time in the classroom made it very clear to me that I wanted a career in a primarily teaching position.
How did you develop teaching skills as an early career scientist?
Getting experience in the classroom—whether it’s as a teaching assistant, the primary instructor for a course, or teaching even a few classes for a professor—is really important. I participated in Harvard Medical School’s Curriculum Fellows Program, and I think of it as a teaching postdoc. I had the opportunity to teach in different contexts and settings, including a local college, Harvard Medical School, and short workshops. This diversity of teaching experiences allowed me to develop my craft and hone my skills. There was a huge emphasis on the scholarship of teaching and learning, and we were taught to rely on that research as we developed curriculum for our own classes. This introduced me to the concept of active learning, and it prepared me for the teaching I am doing now.
The other key part of the Fellows Program was the mentoring. Every fellow had one-on-one mentoring with the associate director of the program, as well as one or two additional faculty mentors. This structured approach—with mentors chosen based on our background and future interests, who would schedule time to meet with us every few months—really helped me. I was able to learn from experienced teachers, and the mentorship I received gave me a really nice sense for the landscape of opportunities.
Why did you choose a career at Minerva Schools?
While applying for teaching positions at liberal arts colleges and primarily undergraduate institutions, I saw an opportunity at Minerva. At first, I was not very enthusiastic about an online college, but I soon realized that they are doing groundbreaking and high-quality work.
I was one of eight founding faculty members at Minerva, and as a result, I’m getting the unique experience of working in a startup. We are building everything from the ground up, so I’m getting a peek into things like business development and fundraising. This position at Minerva is different from the positions that I had envisioned for myself, and it definitely felt like a risk at first. But I had an open mind to new opportunities, I did my research, and it definitely felt like a risk worth taking.
Minerva is a fully accredited four year liberal arts college. Students are in a global immersion program. We don’t have a physical campus and every semester they travel to a different city around the world. We also have a merit-based admission policy, and offer need-based financial aid to every admitted student. This results in a very diverse student population, which is really important to me. Minerva feels like an opportunity to address some of the inequity in higher education, and it is very fulfilling to me to teach in a way that has a lot of impact.
What does an average day teaching at an online university look like for you?
I typically teach every morning from 9:00 to 12:30. Our teaching is all online in real-time small group seminars. We’ve developed our own platform called the Active Learning Forum™, which is based on the science of learning and principles that make teaching more effective. It’s a flipped classroom approach: we design activities such as debates, presentations, and poll questions to engage students. I was attracted to Minerva because the combination of active learning with technology makes everything efficient. I teach an upper-level developmental genetics class and the science portion of our first year general education curriculum; I also advise fourth-year capstone students. In the afternoon, we have team meetings about the first year curriculum and talk about what went well, things that we might want to change, and how we’re going to assess the students. Grading also takes up a big part of my time. Overall, my day is very structured, and I like that discipline.
How do you use your genetics PhD in this position?
I use my expertise to develop the curriculum and teach my genetics class. I enjoy keeping up with the field through teaching it. Genetics asks fundamental questions that resonate with
all students. Questions about how we are so similar, yet so different from each other and how nature and nurture interact to shape our behaviors and health are relevant to all students; even those who may not go on to natural sciences majors. I draw on my training to get students interested in science and the scientific method.
How has your experience in science been influenced by your identity?
As an international graduate student, I experienced a learning curve in figuring out how to work and teach in a different culture. McMaster University had great programs to connect and support international graduate students, and it meant a lot that they have institutional practices that acknowledge and try to address these inherent challenges. As a minority, it was also meaningful work with advisors and mentors from diverse backgrounds throughout my career. It inspired and motivated me to see individuals with varied backgrounds succeed and carve niches for themselves.
A diverse professoriate is important as it gives students access to a range of experiences and perspectives. For instance, in my general education science class, I try to incorporate examples and stories from current events in India. I think my identity is a strength, especially given our very diverse student community at Minerva, and I hope that students may relate to me in the same way I have related to mentors in my career.
About the author:
Caitlin McDonough is the Co-Chair of the Early Career Scientist Career Development Committee and a PhD Candidate in the Center for Reproductive Evolution at Syracuse University. She endeavors to highlight the varied experiences of scientists and make careers in science accessible to individuals of all identities.
Learn more about the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Leadership Program.