Meet Renee Richer, the 2022 DKU Teaching Award Winner

Professor Renee Richer

By Hanbing Lin*

Renee Richer, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Biology at Duke Kunshan University (DKU). Graduated from Harvard University, she works at the intersection of environment and biology (physiological ecology) with emphasis on the impacts of climate change and ameliorating its impacts. She is the recipient of the Duke Kunshan University award for Outstanding Teaching in Undergraduate Courses for the academic year 2021-22. This award recognizes excellence in teaching in undergraduate courses, as nominated by the students. 

Students’ Feedback about Prof. Renee Richer’s courses

“Prof. Richer organizes this course based on all students’ interests and always shares interesting articles related to both course objects and our interests. Besides, she always motivates us to pursue potential research opportunities that will be very helpful for our future applications. She is always there, willing to provide information and suggestions for our learning and individual research. I can relate the class material to my individual research well and I can see how useful this knowledge is for my future study. And she is willing to answer any question in or after class, and she always explains in detail so I have no difficulty fully understanding the course. She really deserves this award!!!”

I do not like biology, but because of Renee Richer, I was so motivated.”

How rare and precious are comments like this in the days when student disengagement worries instructors all over the world? We had the pleasure of talking to her and asking her to share her experience with teaching online.

Reach out to Students and Establish a Learning Community in Online Classes

It is so hard to connect to students scattered worldwide on Zoom [when teaching remotely and students outside of China cannot return], especially in a large class, but Prof. Richer still tries her best to reach students wherever they are and make ties with them. Besides telling students that whenever they want to meet to just let her know, she also stays behind after each class. At the end of each class, she stops the recording and tells the students they can log off now, but she will stay for a little while in case they want to ask questions or just chat. Turning off the recording helps students that will usually shy away from cameras. 

She shares “silly” cartoons about science and does ice breakers throughout classes, so students talk and learn more about each other. To establish a sense of community, she also encourages students to share their work, read each other’s papers before submission, discuss what concepts they are struggling with, and learn from each other. During the lockdown due to COVID, students in Kunshan could not go out, so students in the US went out to collect the materials for a lab. Students in Kunshan contributed by doing what they could, image analysis and calculations, for example. They came together to build the final lab report.

Engage Students with Extreme Examples and Relatable Assignments 

In class, Prof. Richer uses extreme examples to shock and “wake” students up. For instance, she talks about an animal, a sea slug, which eats algae, incorporates the chloroplasts into it, and photosynthesizes. The animal’s genome has incorporated some genes to keep the chloroplasts alive. Most people are unaware that these sea slugs -animals – photosynthesize, so it is eye-opening and engaging for her students.

Students love her assignments. One student said, “I love the enlightening podcasts professor assigned to us each week, and I love the Six Extinction reading. It makes me fully amazed by and respect the power of nature.” Prof. Richer uses scientific documentaries and podcasts that are fun to listen to and relatively easy to understand to illustrate what they are doing in class and have students write a response paper. Instead of calculations and derivations, students are asked to write about: “How do you feel about this?” “How do you respond to this unexpected scientific discovery?” “How do you respond to the fact that plants can learn and have behaviors?” It gets students to write about how they feel about sciences and how their attitudes toward sciences are changing.

Prof. Richer also assigns light readings, such as short science news articles, and scientific papers, which she guides students through step-by-step. Students enjoy knowing they have the knowledge and expertise to understand a scientific paper and grow more confident in their pursuit of the sciences. 

Guide Students with Personal Experiences and Train Students to be Young Scientists

Prof. Richer loves sharing with her students the failures and successes that she once experienced as a student. Students often do not realize that professors might have once struggled in college as well. They may not be aware of the challenges that their mentors have faced and overcome. Sharing that experience with students is an excellent way to establish a connection. Through faculty stories, students can see themselves, their struggles and successes, and how to get where they want. This successful and confident person they admire once struggled in classes as well. What else can motivate the students more when they are down? As Prof. Richer says, “I share so students can see that it is their personal motivation and diverse experiences that are an indication of ‘success’ and not perfect grades.”

She believes every student has unique skills and knowledge to contribute to the academic world, so she encourages everyone. When a student has an interest, she tries to support it and helps students see that their interests can be their careers. She always asks students how they imagine their future and how they would like to spend their time. Do they enjoy being in the field or the lab? What type of work do you imagine themselves doing in that setting?

One student commented: “Professor Richer is so nice that she tries her best to help us with our research interests. She shared science news with us daily through email and recommended a lot of research and internship opportunities for us to polish our resumes. ” Students sometimes come to her asking, “This article you shared really addresses my interest; how can I learn more?” In classes, if she notices something students are particularly interested in, she will feed and funnel the class information through their interests. For example, she has a student that is particularly interested in wolves. When they do something in class, she will try to illustrate how it is relevant to the student’s wolf interest. Why is this biological concept important for wolves? How do we apply it to wolves?

Prof. Richer encourages students to apply for research opportunities, everything and anything as she puts it. She writes recommendation letters for them and helps them go through students’ letters to professors. Sometimes you get the most unexpected offer and get rejected by what you are so sure is yours. She shares her experiences as a college student looking for opportunities and demonstrates to the students: “You just have to apply. ” To students worrying that their GPAs are not good enough for graduate schools, she will tell them graduate schools are not looking for a 4.0. They will look at how students spend their time and whether they are participating in activities that a young scientist will be interested in, such as attending conferences and doing research. 

Connecting with students is a challenge all faculty face. Many go out of their way to motivate and inspire students during tough times. Students clearly appreciate the efforts and prof. Richer’s story shows that enthusiasm and love for what you do can transmit through Zoom. 

About the author

*Hanbing Lin, Ph.D., is the Educational Consultant for Sciences for the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at DKU. She collaborates with the CTL team to work closely with DKU faculty, especially faculty in the Division of Natural and Applied Sciences. She received her Ph.D. in Physics from Drexel University and had taught at college and high school levels in US and China for over a decade before joining DKU.