Instructor on record: Didier Mena Aguilar adjusts teaching strategy amid pandemic
Didier Mena Aguilar began his academic career at the Costa Rican Institute of Technology where he’d earn his Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology Engineering. When he graduated, he had the opportunity to teach a high school chemistry and biology lab in Costa Rica where his passion for teaching was discovered. He explored different graduate schools and his search led him to Virginia Tech and the Biochemistry Department Graduate Program. He reached out to the head of the Graduate Program, Dr. Pablo Sobrado, to receive more information. After this initial information session, Didier was set to attend Virginia Tech and to make Blacksburg his new home.
“My first formal teaching experience was a lot of fun and when I came to Blacksburg, I didn’t have a teaching appointment, but then I found out about this program. Since I’m passionate about teaching, I decided to join because I want to teach after I finish with my degree. I really liked the research, the teaching, and the different opportunities within the Biochemistry Department. I fell in love with Blacksburg; it’s beautiful, I really like the community, and I’m enjoying my time here.”
Didier would complete his Master’s at Virginia Tech while completing research in Dr. Sobrado’s lab. Currently, he is a third-year Ph.D. Biochemistry student working on his dissertation in Dr. Richard Helm's lab. Dr. Helm and Dr. Amy Pruden’s Lab (from the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department) are collaborating on a project studying opportunistic pathogens in drinking water and how water chemistry and pipe materials affect and promote the growth of these pathogens. Didier is focusing his research on one specific pathogen: Legionella pneumophila. He’s using proteomics and lipidomics to study the biology of this organism in water under varying conditions.
Didier is also a part of the Graduate Teaching Scholar program, as one of the two representatives for the Department of Biochemistry. The Graduate Teaching Scholar program is a 3-year program that offers training, education, and hands-on experience to prepare graduates to become successful teachers.
In this program, Graduate Teaching Scholars are enrolled in classes to learn about various topics such as the fundamentals of teaching, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in teaching, and active learning. Additionally, Graduate Teaching Scholars are assigned to a course to work in over the course of the program, and Didier was assigned to the Biochemistry for Bio-Tech class.
During the first year in the program, Graduate Teaching Scholars act as the Teaching Assistant for the class: grading papers and assisting the lead instructor. Didier had the unique opportunity to teach two lectures during his first year because of his previous teaching experience. In the second year, Graduate Teaching Scholars are responsible for teaching half the course and finally, during their third year, they teach the entire course.
This year, Didier is the instructor on record for Biochemistry for Biotechnology (BCHM 3114). BCHM 3114 is a non-major, online, synchronous course; the class was originally offered face-to-face but had to be transitioned to an online format, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’d asked Didier if he could’ve imagined teaching his class online during this time when he first started with the Graduate Teaching Scholars program, he would’ve said no.
“Adjusting to an online class was hard. I didn’t think it’d be possible! For me, getting used to the technology while also keeping everything as simple as possible so that my students didn’t feel overwhelmed was challenging. A lot of my time was spent familiarizing myself with Canvas and setting up pages, modules, and group assignments and it’s a lot of pressure because it’s my first-year teaching and everything is all on me. But, after week one, I’m still here. I’m still ready to continue!”
There are 280 students enrolled in the course and because it is a non-majors class, these students come from a variety of different academic backgrounds: criminology, human development, economics, biology, nutrition, engineering—just to name a few. The number and diversity of students is also a challenge for him.
“While I haven’t taught a major’s class before, I believe that there are a couple of key differences. The first one being the level of biochemistry knowledge. If you were to compare Biochemistry for Biotechnology and the Biochemistry for majors’ class that Dr. Kylie Allen and Dr. Daniel Slade are teaching, the level is really different. I also think that teaching Biochemistry majors may be easier because they’ll be more engaged with the content. It’s a fun challenge for me.”
Despite challenges with COVID-19 and the nature of his class, he’s determined to keep his students engaged. He relies on examples related to concepts that he teaches in the courses that are applicable to different backgrounds. For example, for an upcoming lecture about DNA, Didier plans to provide examples related to criminology. Additionally, fun facts at the start of class to peak student’s interest are key. For instance, did you know that there’s a protein named after Sonic the Hedgehog?
Under the seemingly negative circumstances, Didier ends on a positive note. “I look forward to getting to know my students, making connections with them, and helping them grow. It’s truly the most fulfilling part of being an instructor.”
For the time being, Didier is finishing up his academic career and while he insists that his future isn’t certain, he knows that he’s going to use his education and experience to become an instructor or faculty member where he’s looking to teach. He credits the Graduate Teaching Scholars program for getting him prepared and making him competitive for the job hunt post-grad. Having hands-on experience and the teaching theories has truly changed his life and has set him up for a bright future.
“I’m now constantly thinking about how I can make the people around me learn better and how I can foster diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in my research, presentations, and in myself. The program really opened my eyes.”