Assistant Professor of Physics Massooma Pirbhai knows that equipping students with the practical tools they'll need to excel in their chosen career paths starts in the classroom.
It’s only her second semester as a faculty member at St. Lawrence University, yet Assistant Professor of Physics Massooma Pirbhai is already teaching her dream class.
“I’m really excited about my biophysics course,” she says. “It deals with the last 20 years of research in biophysics. We’ll read a lot of contemporary papers and talk about some of the things that are happening right now. And students get to design a project of their own.”
That last component is essential to Pirbhai’s overarching goal for the course. By the time her students graduate, she wants them to be confident not just in their research, but in their ability to convey their experience to future employers. Those enrolled in biophysics have a demonstrated interest in exploring related careers, such as bioengineering or medical technology development. Under Pirbhai’s mentorship, they’ll gain the practical knowledge they’ll need to be competitive candidates when applying to internships and jobs.
“They have to take a job description, or they have to take an internship description and research the lab that they're interested in. And toward the end, after I work with them, they're going to come up with a project that they could propose to the lab,” Pirbhai explains. “It’s the first time I'm teaching it, but I'm super excited.”
She’ll also help students craft curricula vitae and write cover letters that clearly advocate for their abilities as researchers and young professionals. As Pirbhai works to cultivate relationships with students that foster their personal and professional growth, she’s grateful to have a similar network of support from faculty and staff in the close-knit St. Lawrence community.
In all the courses that we teach, we should try to learn a little more about our students, starting from the intro classes. Knowing my students and trying to get them where they want to be is important for me. —Assistant Professor of Physics Massooma Pirbhai
“For more than five years now, I’ve been trying to persuade people that I really want to create a biophysics course,” she says. “Not even one year here [at St. Lawrence], the department asked, ‘How about you try it?’ And I said, ‘Wait, during a pandemic?’ They told me to just give it a try. They're willing to give you a chance and they're willing to let you grow.”
In addition to guidance from physics colleagues, the launch of her biophysics course was a cross-department effort.
“This whole thing could not have happened without the biology or the chemistry department,” she says.” I was messaging [them] asking for help and to let students know about the course. They were always offering to help in any way.”
Pirbhai’s own research concerns the interactions between nanomaterials, specifically carbon nanotubes, and cellular structures. That may seem complex, but she’s trained in the art of breaking it down and making it approachable to non-physicists.
“Those really, really small particles, we usually call them nanoparticles, are used for research and medical purposes,” she explains. “Think about attaching them to deliver drugs or genes. We want to make sure we understand their short- and long-term effects. We don’t want to be attaching something without knowing how it’s going to react to your cells, and instead of curing a disease, we’re creating a disease.”
Pirbhai believes the ability to clearly explain one’s research, no matter how complicated, to others is essential to a holistic physics education. It’s a big part of what drew her to the liberal arts learning model at St. Lawrence. As an instructor and a mentor, she seeks to empower her students’ with the oral and written communication skills they’ll need to forge ahead and excel in their careers.
“At the end of their four years here, [students] should be closer to getting their dream job, and not only getting [it], but also having the skills needed to survive [it],” she says... “In all the courses that we teach, we should try to learn a little more about our students, starting from the intro classes. Knowing my students and trying to get them where they want to be is important for me.”