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Dr. Poorna Viswanathan - Directing Students' Success

For any student, a new classroom is uncharted territory. Whether it be a lecture hall or a laboratory, a new room offers different experiences like strange technology or foreign terminology. It’s easy to understand why students can feel intimidated or question their position as their degree progresses. In the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics (MMG), Dr. Poorna Viswanathan serves as the director of undergraduate studies and teaching labs, developing comfortable environments and exemplary courses for the department’s students. Coming from a background of supportive and motivated learning, Poorna has had a smooth and successful transition into this role, allowing for extraordinary growth in our students.

Walking into Poorna’s teaching lab early in the summer semester, she had already formed visible bonds with her students. “Before class starts, I plan meetings with each of the students. I’d like to get to know them, their career interests, or how they’d like to improve their career.” By taking in this information, Poorna learns how she can be a successful professor in addition to how her students become strong and successful in her courses. “Students are so resilient. They take all of these classes even with problems in life or at home…I don’t want them to question why they are here. “

Looking back on Poorna’s education, she received each of her degrees in India. Starting out, her initial intention was to join the medical field. However, students in India know well in advance that getting into the medical field is a complicated process. As that plan did not work out, Poorna took her side plan and joined a graduate program in microbiology, as that field still gave her an indirect connection to medicine. While smoother than medicine, the microbial field still had a rough path, “I went into my PhD already married with 2 kids…I was halfway through the program when I wanted to quit.”. Taking care of a family, she felt the urge to fall back, but she credits her incredible support system for her continuation of her degree. Seeing as she questioned her path back then, she finds motivation in that to be a reason that her students stay on their paths to their degrees, as with a support system in place, she and her students have an easier time completing their degrees.

Poorna came to MSU as a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Lee Kroos’s lab working on transcriptional regulation in Myxococcus xanthus. She was in his lab for five and half years before she moved as a research associate in MMG. While in that position, Poorna, who already had extensive research and undergraduate teaching experience from India, was hired for the position of the director of MMG’s teaching labs. Throughout her PhD, she always liked teaching, as her graduate professors inspired and consistently encouraged their students to learn. With those mentors in mind, Poorna took a unique approach to teaching labs, reframing the labs to encourage authentic research, troubleshooting, and enjoyment of the sciences without intense accountability.

That all in mind, much of Poorna’s success can be credited to her experiences in education. From her wonderful support system as a student to the lessons her students teach her today, she’s come to understand the challenges that students face in the teaching lab. As such, Poorna has been a model faculty member in MMG, welcoming all students into the labs and making sure the Spartans excel in their careers in microbiology and molecular genetics.


By Rachael Stohlin