by Heidi Norton
As my graduate student mentor when I was an undergraduate, Sarah Moore taught me about a lot more than just cloning and protein engineering (which I know oh so well thanks to Sarah). She taught me about the scientific process, how to design experiments, and how to set scientific and professional goals, all while having fun. She was a great example of the type of mentor I want to be – supportive, goal-oriented, and a great teacher. Sarah was
Recently I had the chance to ask Sarah about how she got to where she is and what it’s like teaching engineering at an all women’s liberal arts school, Smith College.
Part of getting to where she is today was figuring out where she wanted to be. Sarah’s interest in engineering first began in a middle school shop class, and in college she discovered her love of research.
“I like thinking about the world on a molecular level. While I was in college I started to realize that biological molecules and all of the exquisite things they could do really fascinated me. And the fact that you could start building new biology with them just seemed to bring out this mad scientist side in me, and I liked that. So I started to realize that I had this emotional connection to human health and that it mattered. I started to think that I could make a difference by applying engineering to human health. So I had a great mentor, David Wood, who I did my first summer research with after my freshman year. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought it would be something to try. And I liked it. I liked having open-ended, messy problems that no one necessarily knew the answer to but I was given the time and space to try and figure them out and in an environment where I was working with other people to figure them out. That was my first taste of what engineering could be in a very tangible setting-- working in a lab for the summer.”
I liked having open-ended, messy problems that no one necessarily knew the answer to but I was given the time and space to try and figure them out."
Sarah realized that she wanted teaching, along with research, to be one of the central components of her future career. Stanford had a program in their grad student life office that helped expose Sarah to the various types of professorship positions out there. “I started to hear from people who had chosen to be professors but in a context that was not a major research institution. So I heard about people from liberal arts colleges and even community colleges and learned that there are many types of programs out there. As I started to hear about them and talk to people who were in different positions, the one that resonated most was the kind of liberal arts college experience that still considers itself a research college. So it’s not just teaching; research is valued. You do both in a way that values both.”
“Liberal arts and engineering are not always considered in the same breath. But there are several dozen liberal arts colleges that do have engineering programs that integrate the two, focusing on undergraduate education and research that is impactful and asking important questions, yet not necessarily the quantity that I would be doing at a major research institution. And Smith is one of those places. So when I was applying to faculty positions, I focused on only applying to positions that were liberal arts colleges with engineering programs. And Smith was definitely the one I was most excited about. When I visited, it was definitely a fit all the way around. Talking to the students and faculty currently here, I saw a shared vision of integrating engineering in a liberal arts context where you have to not just answer important questions but think about why you’re answering them and doing so in a way that’s really motivating the next generation of scientists and engineers. And also the role of Smith as a women’s college has been a fascinating and rewarding thing to be a part of as well.”
“And similarly, a teaching statement for a liberal arts college actually matters a lot. Thinking about how do you fit into the mission of the institution? I believe in and talked about why engineering should be accessible to everyone, whether someone chooses to major in engineering or not, but they should be able to feel like they can take classes in engineering. So those are some of the things I talked about and some of the courses that I thought I could teach. A major research institution might not necessarily have that approach. Access to engineering as a field of study is something that ‘s really important to me.”
One of the first classes she designed as a new faculty member at Smith was called Engineering for Everyone. “There are no prerequisites, with the idea that everyone should have access to getting to explore engineering and the engineering design process. I teach that course with a focus on applications in human health and how engineering design can be used to address various problems in human health. Most of the students are first years, a lot of who are thinking about majoring in engineering, but there are a fair number of people in the class who just want to learn what engineering is. And I like that. I like having the opportunity to have the first contact with students who are thinking about majoring in engineering as well as to encourage women who just want to know what it is so it’s less scary to think about technology. I want them to feel like they can interact with technology and contribute to it and that it’s not just something that’s being done for them and they’re being given technology or given a solution, but empowered to feel confident in interacting with engineering.”
I ask her why she thinks it’s important to teach engineering concepts to people not pursuing careers in engineering. She tells me there are so many reasons that she could talk all day about it, but she’ll name a few:
“One [reason] is emerging in this kind of world where we all have access to be creators and makers and designers. The idea of designing and creating something that didn’t used to exist doesn’t belong to a limited few who may have access to an expensive piece of equipment or specific knowledge or background anymore. If someone has an idea, they can pursue it. Engineering design is one way to enable people to pursue those ideas, to give a process of first identifying a need and then framing the challenge. You might first notice something that could be better. Maybe it’s in human health, maybe it’s in your community. Maybe it’s that little thing in your apartment that’s been driving you nuts and you can fix it. But there’s something that you can improve. So the first step is exploring that need so you can understand it fully, developing ideas of possible ways you could solve that need and expand that idea space, and then starting to address that need: how do you pursue your idea and implement it? And recognizing that no first idea or design will be the optimal one then going through and iterating that process. Engineering design gives people tools to start realizing their ideas, and I think that’s valuable for anyone.”
We all have access to be creators and makers and designers…Engineering design gives people the tools to start realizing their ideas, and I think that's valuable for anyone."
I’m also curious about what it’s like teaching at an all women’s college and in what ways she thinks the all-female environment impacts her students’ learning.
“Some of the differences are not the direct result of being a women’s college, but are the direct result of a women’s college working to provide access to education. Smith, like other women’s colleges, was founded in a time when there weren’t many opportunities beyond high school for women. There simply were not colleges that women could enroll in. So it opened with the intent to fulfill this need for access to education. As that definition of access has shifted, women’s colleges have continued to push that boundary of what access means and how we are relevant in providing access. There was a New York Times article recently that showed that in the economic diversity ranking, Smith was in the top 5. I love being part of a place that values access to education and follows up on that commitment in tangible ways. Some of the results of that are that some of the conversations in the classroom are broader because we get more diverse perspectives. So when I’m teaching my Engineering for Everyone class and we’re talking about a need in human health and we’re talking for example about malaria, there are students in the class who have had malaria and are able to talk directly about those experiences rather than just this hypothetical ‘Well what do you think it would be like to have malaria?’”
I ask Sarah what she’s most proud of from her first two years as a professor. Her answer sums up why I’m pretty sure she’s an amazing professor: “I’m proud of feeling like I’ve started making a difference in some of my students’ lives. Seeing them start to identify what they want to continue to pursue, or take the steps towards identifying that is very gratifying to me. Seeing students learn to do things that they didn’t previously think they could do.”
Outside of being an awesome researcher and teacher, Sarah likes to be outside. Check out some of her cool adventures below!