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Faces of UW: First-year faculty

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Months before beginning as professors, new UW faculty members were doing homework. But now, they’re the ones assigning it.

“You are a colleague of people who used to lecture you just a few years ago,” said Hedy Lee, a new sociology assistant professor at the UW. “I was the one in the audience, looking at the clock sometimes, so [this is] a big step.”

Many new professors at the UW have just received their Ph.D. For some, this is their first teaching experience.

“I guess in some ways it’s like being a freshman, but when you’re in college you get to know your classmates,” new faculty member Jennifer Dubrow said. “It’s different here. In some ways you’re really on your own. The responsibility is on you.”

The following UW professors have each experienced different challenges and successes during their first year.

Devin Naar: The Community Professor

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The UW was the only university to which Devin Naar applied. Naar, assistant professor in Jewish studies and in the history department, came to the UW not just to teach. He was on a mission to study one of the largest communities of Sephardic Jews in the United States, a group that has close ties to his own family history.

“The other thing that really drew me to the UW was actually [this] aspect of the larger community in Seattle,” he said. “It was really a great kind of coincidence that this job should be opening up at the UW, and that there should also be this communal component.”

Naar, who began teaching at the UW fall quarter, was a student himself only 11 months ago at Stanford, where he earned his Ph.D. in history.

As a new professor, Naar said one of the things he initially struggled with most was assigning grades. He said he was worried students would take the grade personally.

“In the end, I really did agonize over [grades],” he said.

Naar was a TA during graduate school, and he said it wasn’t hard for him to lecture. The difficulty came with finding the time for the administrative components that come along with being a professor.

“Being a graduate student writing a dissertation in a field like mine … it’s the best time ever because you only have one responsibility, which is to do your research and write your dissertation,” Naar said. “And that’s really never going to happen again.”

Naar is working to translate his dissertation on the Sephardic community into a manuscript to publish. His dissertation is a case study on a community from Salonika, Greece, where his family is from. Naar has created a program titled the Seattle Sephardic Treasures Initiative, which has collected artifacts from the local Sephardic community.

“[We wanted] to see … what artifacts, what legacy, what heritage of this community we have right before our noses,” he said. “And [what] can we uncover and dust off, [to] try to put together a portrait for what life was like for this community, both in Seattle and in the places from which they came … before.”

Naar has collected letters, pictures, books, publications, and manuscripts written in the Ladino language from community members. Ladino is a language that uses Hebrew letters but sounds like Spanish. He has his undergraduate students working to catalogue the documents digitally because there are very few examples available online.

Naar said he hopes to impact the field with his book, continue to do research, and cultivate an ongoing relationship with the Sephardic community.

“I’d like to really open up the door to this lost world, and make it come back to life in a certain sense, and make it of relevance to the field and … to students,” Naar said.

To Naar, being a successful professor includes instilling in his students “a sense of consciousness” about the world they live in.

“I ask my students to think critically about what it means to be human and to experience a variety of cultures, and what does it mean to have a specific culture in a globalized world,” he said.

Kai-Mei Fu: The Balancer

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For Kai-Mei Fu, the past eight months as an assistant physics professor at the UW have been about learning how to balance.

Fu went to graduate school at Stanford and earned a degree in experimental quantum optics. She then did a postdoctorate at the Hewlett-Packard Labs in Palo Alto, Calif. She was hired at the UW and began teaching in fall quarter 2011.

Fu said when she began looking for a job while working in California, she was searching for an institution where she could both teach and do research, and a good location to raise her two children. Her husband still works in California and commutes between Seattle and Mountain View, Calif. “It is a challenge, but it’s not so bad,” she said. “He’s down there three and a half days and up here three and a half days. So it seems to be working out.”

Fu said her biggest challenge was a sort of role reversal.

“You go through your entire education being able to ask people questions, and suddenly you get here, and everyone’s asking you the questions,” she said. “It does seem like a huge reversal, and it does happen literally overnight.”

In addition to being in charge, Fu said there is added pressure to be a good adviser and produce results from research. One duty Fu said she really enjoys is advising students.

“They go away, and come back a few days later, and they have all this new stuff to tell you that they’ve learned,” Fu said. “That wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t in the position of advising a graduate student.”

Time management has been one of Fu’s biggest struggles. She said the responsibility has gotten worse as the year has gone on, but she just keeps things in perspective and doesn’t stress about her responsibilities.

“I don’t think I’m going to adjust to it for years … because it will always be a constant optimization problem that I’ll be working towards balancing all three,” Fu said. “That’s an aspect that I really like: I don’t like being bored, and I like challenges.”

And that’s just what her new job has provided her.

“I wouldn’t mind if it was 60 percent of what it is, but given that it’s not, I’ll take [the challenge],” Fu said.

Fu said she has two goals for her time at the UW. One is to teach courses in subjects that interest her. The second is to get more students majoring in physics.

“I’d like to see [more students taking physics], and I’d like to be part of making this happen,” she said.

Hedy Lee: The Fresh Face

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Sociology assistant professor Hedy Lee said people have confused her with a student more than once — she’s been told multiple times how young she looks.

“Even in my own class, [a student] came in and started asking me questions as though I was another student,” she said.

Lee said she just laughs it off. She said students give her a lot of positive feedback for teaching in new ways, such as showing YouTube clips in class.

“I think [students] can relate to me more,” Lee said. “For me, I think it’s an asset [to seem young], not something I feel stigmatized about. I’d rather be mistaken for a student than somebody’s mom.”

Lee was hired in 2009 but didn’t start teaching at the UW until this year. She took a two-year leave to do a postdoctoratal study in her fields of expertise: social demography and health disparities.

When she taught her first class in fall quarter 2011 she was nervous and kept wondering if she was talking too fast.

“I felt as though I sort of was being thrown into a new experience that I had never had before,” she said. “Until you actually do it, you really don’t have a good grasp of it.”

For Lee, one of the biggest transitions was the work load. She estimates that for all the work students do, professors do 100 times the work. And as a professor, the work is multi-faceted.

“You’re an educator; you’re trying to teach students, but you’re also sort of a performer,” Lee said.

She said the hardest part was getting over her nerves. Lee was worried about teaching in front of a large class and making sure it was worthwhile for students. Once she started to get feedback from her students, it became easier for her.

Lee is working on research focusing on the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic factors that contribute to health disparities.

“I’m really interested in better unpacking what it means to be poor, what it means to be a minority, and how that impacts health,” she said.

Lee said when she was looking for jobs she applied to a couple of places but was interested in living in a larger city.

“[Seattle] is in a great city and it is diverse in many ways, which is important for me to because I’m a minority, and I want to be in a diverse place,” she said.

She said that there was a camaraderie among the group because they were all new.

“This is a big life transition, just like any other big life event; for a lot of us we’re moving, and we’re starting a new job,” she said. “I feel like a freshman in some ways.”

Jennifer Dubrow: The Reader

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On her first day of class fall quarter, assistant professor Jennifer Dubrow’s PowerPoint didn’t work.

“It was the worst-case scenario,” she said. “Looking back, I really wish I had made a joke, but I think at the time I was too nervous.”

Dubrow spent a year as a lecturer before being hired as an assistant professor in fall 2011. She finished her Ph.D. in 2011 in South Asian language and literature.

Dubrow said she spends her time in many of the same ways she did as a student — i.e., reading and writing — but now has the challenge of balancing research, teaching, and department responsibilities.

One of the best parts of being a new faculty member at the UW, Dubrow said, is the supportive atmosphere.

“When you’re the new person on the block, people just come up to you and start giving you advice and that’s actually really nice,” Dubrow said.

Dubrow said she struggles to not get too stressed out. The key, she said, is knowing when something is good enough and being able to stop working on it.

“I think a lot of people who go into academia, we tend to be perfectionists,” she said. “That’s just why we go into the business, … and that’s sort of a blessing and a curse.”

Because her field is fairly specific, there were not many job opportunities available. But Dubrow chose the UW for a number of reasons, particularly because the university’s Department of Asian Languages and Literature was a good fit for her.

“It’s a department that takes literature and language teaching very seriously, and so that’s something I really appreciate,” she said.

She has been working with some graduate and undergraduate students in her research.

“It’s scary [to be the mentor],” she said. “In a way it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of the job to watch students grow and develop their interests.”

AJ Boydston: The Innovator

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AJ Boydston, an assistant professor in the chemistry department, said he came to the UW with a combination of adrenaline and nerves, and harnessed those two things to try to do innovative things in both his research and his classroom.

“I think you come in just loaded with adrenaline, and I think that helps you survive a lot of the roller-coaster ride the first few quarters for sure,” he said.

Boydston did his Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin in chemistry with a focus on organic synthesis and polymer chemistry. Afterward, Boydston did a postdoctoral appointment at the California Institute of Technology.

Boydston’s first quarter at the UW was fall quarter 2010. He taught a 400-student introductory class on organic chemistry, a class he had requested to teach. He said the first time teaching was a combination of “absolute excitement and a little fear.”

“[Coming to the UW], I felt like the stakes were just so high,” Boydston said.

In addition to teaching, Boydston began working on two research projects.

“When I first got here, [I had a lot of the lab set up already],” he said. “The reason that was important was it is very calming to go into the chemistry lab and start doing chemistry right away; that’s familiar no matter where you are at and what your setting is.”

Boydston had started out as an undergraduate intending to go to medical school, but then he took an introductory organic chemistry course and fell in love with the science and changed his major.

“For me, undergrad organic chemistry was a turning point,” he said. “Getting to be on the other side of that, and see the light turn on for some students, and to see them get hooked on an aspect of science that I am so passionate about was important to me.”

Boydston struggled in the beginning with deciding what things to dedicate his time to. He said he ultimately had to come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t going to be able to get everything done.

“It’s hard to look around in a department of such successful colleagues, and it seems like they’re not taking anything off of their lists,” Boydston said.

When he was an undergraduate, Boydston told his research adviser that he wanted his job.

“I now finally have my dream job that I looked … [forward] to as a student and a postdoctorate,” he said. “It’s just a wonderful feeling to be actually doing that now.”

Reach reporter Sarah Radmer at features@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @sarahradmer

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