From the Desk of the Director: Far Above Cayuga’s Waters

From the Desk of the Director: Far Above Cayuga’s Waters 8/24/15

I will never forget the moment when as a young instructor I took a polaroid picture of the agarose gel after gel electrophoresis and (going against all protocol) started to shake it so it would dry faster. Sadly, the song on the top of the charts those days was “Hey Ya!” performed by OutKast, so naturally, I started to sing “Shake it like a Polaroid picture…”. I did not know any other words of the lyrics, but that was enough for a few students to approach me after the lab section and express their gratitude:

“Thank you for making us realize that the teachers are humans too.”

As a teacher, I’ve seen how much effort instructors invest into breaking down the boundaries that naturally exist between teachers and students. We as educators walk that fine line where we want to be friendly, caring, and nurturing, but we cannot be friends with our students, for a very obvious reason: it would be hard to assign a grade to a friend at the end of the semester. This is why the same OutKast song popped into my mind when I was sitting at the Biological Sciences graduation ceremony that the Office of Undergraduate Biology organizes every year. Biological Sciences warrants its own ceremony, as it is the largest major in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences..

We just sent off many of those students with a B.S. in this quickly-evolving scientific field. I had three graduating advisees this year, in addition to the many undergraduate teaching assistants who also said good-bye to Cornell. Therefore, I was happy to be part of this ceremony, and observe this great milestone. The Biological Sciences Graduation is held a day before the Commencement Ceremony, and it is a small, more intimate way to celebrate with the students and their families. Many of these students will become our next doctors, researchers, professors, or use their biology degrees as patent lawyers (comes handy when getting a DNA fragment patented), or working for investment firms, funding new health related spin-offs.

While these students were both celebrated and celebrating, I could not take my attention away from the faculty. We couldn’t wait to jump up from our chairs when the name of one of our advisees or undergrad teaching/research assistants was called. We wanted to shake his or her hand and often give an awkward hug, the kind that looked like most faculty wanted to give, but many students looked uncomfortable to accept. I was Tweeting, taking pictures, and would have Periscoped the whole event, if I did not already feel the looks of hundreds of parents sitting behind me, wondering why this faculty member is on his cellphone instead of paying the well deserved attention to their “baby”, who is getting a Cornell degree.

Yes, we teachers are human, and I wanted to jump up and sing to show the students that we have feelings; we will miss them, and we are just as (if not more) emotional at this important moment, than they are. With every graduating student, we instructors shamelessly celebrate ourselves. The “product” of education is successful students, and we facilitate that creation (interesting choice of words in a biology blog- I know); hence celebrating the moment with joy and emotion.

“We are all sensitive scientists, who are nervously checking in the mirror whether the academic regalia fits well, trying to squeeze in a last hug before our students become someone else’s apprentices, and looking for that last photo opportunity with our graduates in the crowd.”

After that, we return our gowns and hoods (yes, they are provided by the university) and begin our job again, as academic education is just like reincarnation in Buddhism: the spirit of each graduating student is reborn in an incoming freshman.

Our job, reshaping the minds of students, is never done. So, while our students try to shake off all that “faculty dust” they received from the hugs of their sensitive professors during graduation, we sit down for a moment, just like Sisyphus, to sing our alma mater (“Far above Cayuga’s waters…”) before trying to roll a new rock up the steep hills of Cornell.


Investigative Biology Director Receives Distinguished Teaching award


Investigative Biology Director receives distinguished teaching award along with former undergrad TA and faculty mentor:


Dr. Mark A. Sarvary, the Director of the Investigative Biology Laboratories, received the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture (NACTA) award from Dean Kathryn Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and Associate Dean Don Viands. Top students and faculty of CALS attended the dinner at the Statler Hotel Ballroom on April 17, 2017. Awardees walked up to Dean Boor one-by-one after dinner to receive their awards, while Dean Viands highlighted their achievements.


Associate Dean Viands introduced Dr. Sarvary, and quoted some of his students:


 “One of his greatest qualities is that he pushes me, and all of his students, to challenge ourselves. This support helps us to reach goals that we may not have thought we could accomplish. He has had many experiences that let him see potential in his students when we cannot see in ourselves.”


Another student wrote,


“I consistently looked forward to that class. While doing experiments, Professor Sarvary explained in lecture why we did certain labs to enable us to understand how these lab techniques could be applied in the real world. . . Professor Sarvary is the best lecturer I have had at Cornell to date. I admire how much he loves what he teaches and hope that I can still be as passionate as he is about biology throughout my career.”


Dr. Sarvary, Dean Boor, and Macey Wilson


Dr. Sarvary was nominated for this award by his advisee, Macey Wilson. Wilson, pictured above, is a Biological Sciences Major and is currently the head undergraduate TA of Investigative Biology. Macey will graduate next month and has been Dr. Sarvary’s advisee since her freshman year.

The North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture (NACTA) is a professional organization advancing the scholarship of teaching and learning in agricultural, environmental, natural and life sciences. According to the CALS nomination website, the selection criteria includes evaluation of the following qualities: innovative aspects of the nominee’s teaching, undergraduate and graduate advising, interactions with students and colleagues outside of class, mentoring and motivating students and a national and international footprint.

Dr. Sarvary consistently meets all of those criteria, as he brings modern pedagogical methods into his Investigative Biology class, and trains both undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants how to use these methods. He is involved in service learning and engaging students in activities outside of the classroom. As the science advisor and co-curator of the local science café he recently received a grant from Engaged Cornell to spread the seed of science literacy by involving Cornell students in community-based learning. Dr. Sarvary’s plan is to introduce the local science café called Science Cabaret to undergraduate students via his new Science Communication course (BioG3500). Students will help assess the impact of this science café on community learning, while gaining knowledge about how to start and maintain this type of public science event. He helped the undergraduate debate club called “Debate in Sciences and Health” take off in 2013 and has been the faculty advisor since the club was founded. He has been enthusiastic about advising, and wrote blog posts about his experience with undergraduate teaching assistants and the graduation of his advisees.


Dr. Sarvary’s international footprint will benefit many Cornell students soon. He arrived to the United States as an undergraduate exchange student from Hungary, and wants to create a similar opportunity for Cornell undergraduates to explore education and research at his old alma mater. He has been working closely with the International Office of Szt. Istvan University in Hungary and Cornell Abroad, to create a Cornell in Hungary program to help undergraduate students gain international experience.


This award ceremony was special for Dr. Sarvary at the personal level: one of the first undergraduate teaching assistants of Investigative Biology (Ahmed Ahmed), and a former faculty advisor of the course, Professor Tom Owens received awards from Dean Boor too. Ahmed received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence. He has been one of the most outstanding biology students at Cornell, and will study at Oxford next semester as a Rhodes scholar. Professor Owens received the distinguished Edgerton Career Teaching Award, honoring his decades long teaching career, especially his contribution to introductory biology. Professor Owens has been a strong supporter of the Investigative Biology labs, and has acted as mentor to Dr. Sarvary in the past years.










         Pictured Left: Dr. Sarvary and Tom Owens                                                                                                    Pictured Right: Ahmed Ahmed and Dr. Sarvary


For Dr. Sarvary, it was an honor to receive an award along with Ahmed and Prof. Owens and take part in representing three generations of scientists strengthening  biology education curriculum at Cornell.


Proactive Pedagogy

Proactive Pedagogy

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 3.14.02 PM“Praised for its innovative components of active learning, the course has been described as “the experimental foundation for our entire major in biological sciences,” and has become a model now used by other universities around the country.” – CALS Tumblr

The Investigative Biology staff have engineered a new approach to teaching foundational biology. The impact the course has made on academic structure has has a countrywide presence. The CALS Tumblr details how this new, adaptive approach to pedagogy has made the course increasingly popular since its overhaul in 2010.


Press, Presentations, & Awards


Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 2.00.29 PMDuring November of 2013, Cornell University honored staff and faculty for exceptional performance in the categories listed under the university guidelines “Skills for Success”. The Investigative Biology team were honored for success in the category of Adaptability. The full article can be read here.

In that same month, Dr. Sarvary was one of the presenting speakers at the Academic Technologies symposium. He presented an e-portfolio describing the usage of Panopto technology in the Investigative Biology lectures. Over 75 professors attended the technology fair and the full article on all the technology presented can be found via the Cornell Daily Sun.