Professor Spotlight: Dr. Jelena Samonina, UVA Dept of Chemistry

Claire Cornell

How has COVID-19 affected your course structure and teaching style?

COVID has definitely affected every aspect of our lives, including learning and teaching. Since I teach classes with large enrollments, my courses were all moved online. As professors, when we found out we were moving towards online teaching, it was only four days before instruction was supposed to resume after the 2020 spring break, so we were in a panic! Everyone had to adapt and rethink how to teach online, and that was very challenging. After the spring semester ended, however, we had the summer to better prepare for the next semester. After the Spring 2020 semester, we gained more experience with online teaching. We could utilize wonderful resources from places like the Center for Teaching Excellence and also have dialogues with our colleagues about what did and didn’t work during the 2020 spring semester. Based on that, every professor, including myself, worked to continue to offer to our students high quality education, even in a virtual environment.

My courses are usually based on active learning. I like to have conversations with students, so I am asking questions and want students to be engaged with the material. A virtual environment challenged all that, and so I had to re-think on how to maintain an active learning dynamic with my students. During the Spring 2020 semester my courses were asynchronous. I really missed interactive conversations and direct contact with my students. So I definitely wanted to teach my courses synchronously, because then I can visually see my students and build connections with them even when it’s through Zoom. It’s easier to see the faces of my students during the lecture, so when students seem confused, I can rephrase or explain it differently. I love the dynamic and connection with my students, and I hope that I am able to retain that connection with students, even virtually.

One of the surprising positive aspects of virtual learning is that students are more motivated to ask questions using the Zoom chat box!  During in-person classes, it can be very challenging for students to ask question in front of 200 other students. However, a type-in text chat box makes it so much easier for them to participate in the dialogue. I always try to make sure to answer every question. So, there are some positive aspects of online teaching and learning. Another positive aspect of virtual learning is that I had to adapt a lot of different tools and platforms for my courses. Currently, I am using the Microsoft Teams platform for my courses which allows me to maintain everything from one platform (course recordings, notes, announcements, communication, etc.).

I leverage tools that help make students’ lives much easier. Now that I learned which tools are most effective, even when we go back to in-person teaching, I will still continue some of the practices that worked so well online.  For example, I will continue to record my lectures and making them accessible to later viewing by the students. I will also post my Microsoft OneNote presentations notes online for students to access. So, I am already thinking ahead and planning to implement a variety of these technologies in future courses, even once we are back to normal post-pandemic life. 

What are the big differences you see between students who are successful in your classes and those who are not?

The big difference is that students who are successful keep up with the pace of the course. I usually provide my students with a weekly plan -- what to expect and when are the deadlines, so that students can plan their weekly activities accordingly. I understand that students are also taking other courses, so I want to make my students’ lives easier. The students that take advantage of some of the pointers I am giving are more likely to succeed. The more successful students that keep up with the pace of the class are typically well-organized, ask questions, attend office hours, and engage with other students in study groups.

Another thing that I always encourage students to do is to read ahead, even if they don’t understand everything they are reading. When students come to the lecture, some things make more sense when the professor explains them in simpler language. This reinforces what the students read with what they hear during the lecture. Additionally, if students re-read once again after the lecture, and further reinforce it with practice problems, this forms a highly effective study cycle and puts them on a path to success. I love when students ask lots of questions, because it means that they want to learn!  For me, this is very rewarding!

As a professor, how does it feel when students attend office hours? 

I love it! It is an opportunity for me to learn and connect with my students--it is so refreshing to find out who my students are. Each of my students is so unique, I love hearing my students exchanging their ideas and thoughts. Some students come in not just with questions on the subject, but just to hang out. Sometimes we have conversations about the weather and climate change, or about medicine, or different kinds of materials, or the stock market, and that is a really important aspect of learning as well! I love the connections that we develop.  Many students remain in touch with me long after they graduate.  It is really nice to follow up and see where my students end up.  So I really love it when students attend my office hours.

When I was a student in Poland there were no office hours at all, and professors were not available for us.  So when I came to the US, office hours were a new concept for me. I thought “wow, you guys have it so good here!” It makes things so much easier because during office hours the professor will answer all your questions, and that was an amazing thing – so simple yet such an extremely helpful learning aid.

What advice do you have for pre-health students navigating online learning during COVID?

In general, my advice is to get as much exposure as possible to the field that you want to work in. There are so many opportunities to become engaged with different research projects, including shadowing doctors. Get exposed to real-life experiences and learn what it’s like to be a doctor.  I have seen many students that aspire to be doctors, yet once they get into medical school they realize that it is not what they want to do. This can become a very disappointing (and expensive!) experience, so you want to have that introductory exposure early on. Pre-health students are usually very ambitious, but sometimes they realize that being a doctor it is not for them. There’s nothing wrong with that, since there are so many other wonderful career paths, so it’s not terrible if you are not a doctor!

One of your research interests include nanomaterials and medicine. Could you explain this interest and why you've made it one of your focuses?

Before college, I decided to study chemistry, but not just any chemistry. I decided to study organic chemistry that would be linked to medicine. I saw that organic chemistry is really a core science and a key to understanding complex biological systems, because biochemistry is a result of interactions between molecules. Knowing that and having solid training in organic chemistry, you understand how larger molecules work, so you have a better understanding of how the human body works.

So, I pursued that trajectory. I studied chemistry, biology, biotechnology, and I got exposed to many different fields related to medicine.  I found all that very fascinating, so I trained to utilize my chemistry knowledge to build technology and tools applicable in biology and medicine.  

Nanomaterials are a really interesting field, where tiny atomic-scale machines can manipulate individual molecules and solve basic pharmacology problems.  There are many potential drugs that have high efficacy, but it is not easy to deliver these drugs into very specific parts of the body.  Additionally, there are many drugs that have issues with solubility in the aqueous solution--which is the environment of the human body.

Nanoparticles can solve these problems by inserting potent drugs into biologically compatible nanoparticles, and thereby circumvent solubility issues. Decorating those with specific antibodies can assure targeted drug delivery and biodistribution in the human body. It’s a beautiful intertwining of medicine and chemistry!