Photo by Andrea Farrell

Into the Mindset of Biology with Dr. Keefe Reuther

Syni Solanki | SQ Fall Insider 2022

Dr. Keefe Reuther has been a lecturer at UC San Diego since 2009. In 2020, he became an assistant teaching professor, instructing courses such as BILD 4 and BILD 5. His research interests are focused on how undergraduates self-identify as scientists belonging to the scientific community. SQ sat down with Reuther to speak about how the mental health of students affects their development in the field of biology.

Q: What implications does your research have for the culture of biology at UC San Diego?
A: While biology has a large amount of detailed facts, that’s not what makes a biology expert good at what they do. Instead, it is about having a toolkit to problem solve, and think about biology in a holistic way. The biggest new thing in my position is the development of the BILD 5 course: experimental design and analysis for biologists. It allows us to focus on developing skills such as experimental design, information literacy, and also applied statistics and computer programming.

Q: What are some observations you’ve made about the mental health of students in your classes?
A: One part of this is that it is very hard to observe. From the professor’s point of view, with large class sizes a lot of the time our only view of you, if we aren’t seeing you in o”ce hours or directly interacting over email, is largely through your grades. I think that one of the biggest fears that I have for my students is that there is something serious going on, where there are resources where either I or the university can help with, but that issue isn’t visible to me. Students reach out frequently, but I also know that for every student that reaches out, there are a large number that aren’t reaching out.

Q: How should professors accommodate students facing mental health challenges in the classroom?
A: There is the consideration of how we can accommodate students formally, and informally. Formally, there is the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD), that can organize arrangements such as extended time on exams, having access to a notetaker, etc. Those can only be given through that formal process. We want students to have the accommodations that they deserve. Informally, within reason, I want to give students all the resources and help that they need, while maintaining the integrity and fairness of the class. The first step of all of that, is letting me know what is going on. The more notice we get, the more there is of a possibility that we can help. For me, it’s a case-by-case basis, while also having that structure and fairness.

Q: What kinds of limitations do professors face when it comes to mental health challenges among students?
A: A limitation would be the amount of ambiguous pressure that students have on themselves, but also, and particularly because of the pandemic, their experience of what university, the job market, and a specific class is like is very different. I wasn’t an undergraduate during a pandemic. !at experience is completely unknown to me, and none of my fellow faculty have also been in the position that students in this time have been. What worked for me as an undergraduate is not what it means to be an undergraduate now.

Q: What do you think people should know about the mental health of biology teaching faculty?
A: All of us have our own struggles with mental health and wellness. At the end of the day, sure there are some common things that bind faculty together, but when it comes to mental health, it is as variable as what students experience. I think that one of the differences between faculty and students is that we’re older. Whatever we are dealing with, we’ve likely been dealing with it for a longer period of time. Confronting whatever we are facing is hard, but often is the only path forward.