A piece of the puzzle

If you've ever worked on a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, you know the frustration of putting it together, one piece at a time, as the big picture slowly takes shape.

Rekha Patel likens her teaching style to coaching those who are assembling a puzzle — in this case, the big picture of biochemistry. "It's like I'm showing them how each particular piece relates to the bigger puzzle," said Patel, an associate professor in the biological sciences department. "I help them see it, and they go, 'Wow, now I understand that!'"

Students say Patel's patient explanations — and her determination to answer every question — help them grasp the larger significance of the topic at hand instead of merely memorizing a bunch of disjointed facts. That winning teaching style factored into why students have nominated Patel several times to be the Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year, the university's top prize for professors, which she received this year.

"She always brings it back to the big picture and to the way the material can be applied and used. She tells you why this is important," one student wrote in a nomination letter.

"I've waited two years to take Dr. Patel's class because I have heard nothing but good things about her," said another. "I am not disappointed."

Along with striving to learn the 120 or so names of students who enroll every semester in biochemistry, Patel makes it her business to answer students' questions in class and out of class.

"Not one student should walk out of my classroom with an unanswered question," she said. "And the door is always open, literally, to my office."

Those impromptu office sessions with students focus first on the questions at hand, then Patel often asks students a few questions of her own: What do you plan to do with your degree? What do you want to accomplish in life?

"It's about personal growth to some extent," she said. "They're figuring themselves out. Sometimes they need someone other than their parents to help guide them on their way."

When Patel joined the university in 1998, research was her No. 1 focus, and she has garnered grants from the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association and other agencies. While she's always involved undergraduates in her research, she was at first a bit reticent about standing in front of a classroom to teach; now she can't imagine not.

It's possible that her success in teaching is a family trait. Her grandfather was a beloved high school principal in India (she's collected more than a hundred anecdotes from his former students and plans to compile them in a book). And her son is a Noyce Fellow at Carolina who is about to complete a master's in education and become a high school math teacher.

Whatever its source, Patel's ability to effectively instruct her students is apparent. "Every time I leave the class I feel like I know the material," says one of her students. Enough said.

Learn more

Rekha Patel is an associate professor in biological sciences. Visit the biological sciences website to learn more about degree opportunities in that field. 

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