Waubonsee Community College has announced its 2023 Outstanding Faculty Member, Dr. Sheela Vemu, Associate Professor of Biology. Dr. Vemu has served Waubonsee as a full-time Biology instructor since 2013.
Dr. Vemu holds a Doctor of Philosophy in Medical Pharmacology and Molecular Biology from the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. Dr. Vemu's ancestors are from southern India, and their roots extend throughout the region. While studying in Southeast Asia, Dr. Vemu became interested in antibiotics and ethnopharmacology. As an immigrant graduate student in STEM, Dr. Vemu experienced self-doubt and frustration. This experience motivated her to design an inclusive and student-centered approach to teaching. She incorporates team-based learning and authentic scientific experiences both in and out of the classroom.
“I feel it is very important to create an environment where my students feel safe and secure enough to engage with their peers in asking scientific questions,” said Dr. Vemu.
At the beginning of each semester at Waubonsee, Dr. Vemu begins her biology classes by sharing a borrowed slogan from the Local Chicago Council on Science and Technology, "Science is for everyone." She does this because this idea perfectly highlights the importance of diversifying the future STEM workforce of America. It also creates a welcoming space for those curious about STEM but who may feel discouraged because they have yet to see diverse representation in the field.
Dr. Vemu strongly believes in the value of curiosity and urges her students to discover and learn about the world beyond her classroom. She goes the extra mile to expose them to unique opportunities, like inviting Dr. Amal Tokars, Assistant Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), to speak with them about potential careers in public health. Dr. Vemu is committed to preparing her students for success in higher education, the workforce, and society.
"My hope for students is that they will leave my class not only with the appropriate subject matter knowledge but also with the ability to critically think about new information and communicate and evaluate that content in the future," said Dr. Vemu.
She sees her students through a strengths-based rather than a deficit-based lens and actively seeks ways to help them overcome barriers. She considers what elements of students' experiences she can control or help mediate and then assists them in finding the additional support they need to succeed. Dr. Vemu employs formative and summative assessments to measure student learning, provide personalized support, and encourage metacognition and efficacious studying habits. She consistently utilizes High Impact Practices (HIPs) to cultivate profound learning and has integrated some undergraduate research experiences into her courses.
"The first thing for the human mind is to be aware," said Dr. Vemu. "Once we are aware, we can make those cognitive pathways to improve ourselves."
Dr. Vemu consistently demonstrates her commitment to student success by creating an inclusive learning environment in lab and lecture courses at the college. One of the most important inclusive teaching practices Dr. Vemu incorporates is building mentor-mentee relationships with her students. She wants students to think beyond her classroom and creates opportunities by bringing in subject matter experts across various fields and disciplines.
Dr. Vemu promotes inclusivity by acknowledging the contributions of scientists from historically excluded groups. She offers opportunities for her students to learn about the accomplishments of underrepresented individuals in STEM fields, both in and out of the classroom. Her influence is reflected in the success of her current and former students, many of whom come from underrepresented and first-generation backgrounds. Since 2016, they have pursued graduate degrees, been inducted into honors societies, served as tutors, and gained employment in STEM fields. Dr. Vemu's guidance has also enabled her students to present their own research at professional conferences, colleges, and universities, and many have received prestigious fellowships.
In addition to the tremendous time and dedication Dr. Vemu offers her students, she also dedicates time and expertise to curriculum development. She has worked with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Mentor Links grant designed to develop technician training programs in STEM fields. Dr. Vemu has also collaborated with colleagues to enhance and update the existing curriculum.
Dr. Vemu contributes extensively to the college community outside her work with discipline colleagues. In this role, she has led the PTK (spell out first) induction ceremony. She has served on numerous college committees and regularly co-chairs student initiatives, workshops, and events to advance STEM. Last year, Dr. Vemu worked with Waubonsee’s Latinx Resource Center to create more programming centered around Latinx/e representation in STEM. This event showcased experts who shared their lived experiences and career paths within the STEM and biotech industries.
Dr. Vemu will be recognized and presented with the Outstanding Faculty Member Award at a college event in August. The final selection is made by the college's Outstanding Faculty Member Selection Committee, which is comprised of previous recipients of the award and academic administrators.