At the end of fall term, 2018, two of the Honors College’s most engaged and beloved faculty partners retired following careers marked by distinction both in honors and across Oregon State University. College of Science faculty members Kevin Ahern and Indira Rajagopal have been central figures within the college for over a decade. In that time, they’ve made significant contributions in the widest variety of roles, encompassing mentorship, administration, recruitment, co-curricular engagement, resource development and – above all – teaching. Both have been recognized as Honors College Eminent Professors.
Their involvement with honors began through their teaching (Kevin was a professor of biochemistry and biophysics and Indira a senior instructor in biology and biochemistry and biophysics), and their commitment to the classroom has remained the foundation of their relationship with the Honors College. “I was very acquainted with honors students and activities,” says Kevin. “[Increased engagement] was a natural extension.” Indira was a post-doc teaching biochemistry courses when she heard that there would be one section of the introductory honors biology course open. “I had some quirky ideas about teaching,” she says, “and it seemed like students in honors courses would be the ideal group – it turned out to be perfect. They were ripe for the challenge.
“I had this idea that I wanted my students to be fearless,” Indira says. “When they come in, straight out of high school and have their first class with me, they’re sometimes afraid to make mistakes. I wanted to break them of that.” The Honors College’s small class format facilitated her approach. “I do some unconventional things. I set up meetings with them one-on-one and show them that learning is more important than a score, that they’re not going to be punished for being adventurous, that making mistakes is not going to kill their grade. That’s where personal interaction comes in, and the Honors College allows it; you have complete freedom to do what you need to do for their learning.”
“The kids are like children to us – we both feel that strongly,” says Kevin. “We have seen what the honors experience has done for students, the growth students go through. The classes offered and, most importantly, the social component, the camaraderie. It’s universally valued as a ‘fun’ experience. When honors students graduate, they’re sad to leave. Even the thesis is something they’re worried about, but by the time they’re done they really see the value of it.”
The impact of Kevin and Indira’s work is clear from the influence they’ve had on current and past honors undergraduates. “Kevin and Indira are huge champions for their students,” says Brooke Frey, a third year biochemistry and molecular biology major. “You can tell that they want everyone to succeed and reach their fullest potential.” Kevin was instrumental in helping her when she was overwhelmed during her first year, connecting her with a research lab and encouraging her through moments of self-doubt. “Honestly, I was extremely close to changing my major in my first term of college, but he convinced me otherwise and reminded me of my ability to be there and succeed. I would not have been as involved or confident in the biochemistry department without his mentorship.”
The concern that their students thrive as individuals, both while at OSU and after, marks their mentorship and teaching and was a significant factor in their support for the Honors College.
“That’s part of what honors is about,” Indira says. “Not just acquiring knowledge in one specialized area but developing as a human being. In honors biology classes, I can go into the context. History has changed because of biological facts – like an army incapacitated because they ate a certain type of honey. Battles are lost because of biological facts like that! When you learn about things in isolation, you don’t appreciate how it all fits together. You don’t have to have a single identity; you can be a scientist and a musician or a scientist and a poet.”
Kevin – who writes poetry and is known for his science-themed songs – has incorporated this approach in his honors courses “The Scientist in the Public Eye,” which teaches interviewing and writing skills, and “Sing a Song of Science,” in which students write limericks and songs about biochemistry. “It’s a way to get people over the fear of biochemistry. Stress is an impediment to learning,” he says.
The Honors College has supported this kind of innovative teaching. “We both left lab research a long time ago,” Kevin says. “The classroom has really been our research. Working with honors students and in the Honors College has been very important in our continual improvement as instructors. The small class sizes, the opportunity to get to know every person – it’s great to get this kind of valuable feedback from students in majors all across campus.”
“I’ve always viewed the classroom as a laboratory,” adds Indira, “trying out these ideas about how best to get people to develop skills and their own original answers. And students have come up with some really interesting ideas about what the class could do – I just ask them. I’ve learned right alongside them. It’s been a joy.”
As they picture retirement together – travel and writing and learning piano or Italian – they will most likely continue teaching in some form. “I don’t think I can stay away too long,” Indira says. For starters, they have been working with a company, Great Courses, to develop 36 lectures on biochemistry.
And through their many roles in honors – which includes membership on the Board of Regents, the Honors College’s external advisory board, and a stint as co-associate dean – teaching has remained a constant and a foundation.
“The work I’ve done in the Honors College is what I’ve absolutely treasured,” Indira says. “Absolutely,” adds Kevin, “it has been the pinnacle of our careers.”