2016 Excellence in Teaching Award Winner: Sridhar Varadarajan, University of North Carolina at Wilmington
Sridhar Varadarajan, associate professor of chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, joined the faculty at UNC Wilmington in 2003 and teaches a wide variety of courses at the undergraduate and graduate level.
The recipient of a UNCW Chancellor's Teaching Excellence Award, a Distinguished Teaching Professorship Award, and a Discere Aude mentoring award, Varadarajan is a gifted teacher, scholar, and mentor. But teaching was not the career he intended until his post-doctoral advisors and his wife advised him to consider it. After teaching his first class at UNCW he “knew that [he] had made the best decision of [his] career.” More than 12 years later he states: “My excitement and enthusiasm for my interactions with students has only grown over these years. I believe that I am making more of a difference now than I ever could have if I had followed my initial ambition to work in the pharmaceutical industry.”
Of his approach to teaching he writes: “Inspire! This single word has been my guiding principle for all that I do with students. It is the goal that gets me excited at the beginning of each semester. It is the yardstick by which I evaluate my performance at the end of each semester: How many students did I inspire this semester? How many students did I convince to reach higher, and achieve more than they thought was possible?”
His success is undeniable. All past master’s graduates from his laboratory are either currently pursuing Ph.D. degrees at prestigious institutions, or are gainfully employed in the chemical/pharmaceutical industry. The majority of undergraduate students who worked in his laboratory -- more than 30, including four African-American students, and 19 women -- are currently working in the chemical industry, or went on to graduate, medical, dental, or pharmacy school. Two are teachers.
A former student writes: “Dr. Varadarajan has a gift for making complex teaching material understandable. He is dedicated to seeing his students succeed and always makes time to discuss subject matter issues even outside of office hours. Working in his lab as an undergrad student was one of the best experiences in my life.” Another, currently pursuing a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical science, writes: “He has taught me lifelong lessons, not just about education, but also about family and responsibilities, about building relationships that last, as well as building a team with the same goals, no matter their personal differences.”
A colleague writes: “The students flock to his courses and love his lectures. This is the more remarkable as organic chemistry is usually among the courses most dreaded by the students at the outset.” Another writes that he “has a gift for getting students excited about research, working hard and sharing their excitement and knowledge with others.”
Varadarajan earned a BS in chemistry at Bombay University, a BS in chemical technology at Bombay University and a PhD in physical organic chemistry at The Pennsylvania State University.
Q. The Teaching Awards were established in 1994 to underscore the importance of teaching and to encourage, identify, recognize, reward, and support good teaching within the University. What does this award mean to you?
A. I think that this award indicates that I have had some success in influencing the career path of students, and in helping them succeed, since being nominated for this award is a reflection of students’ opinion. However, I do not think that I am the “top instructor” at my institution – so many of my colleagues work tirelessly to help students achieve their full potential, and I still have a lot to learn from them.
Q. What was your path into teaching?
A. An academic career was not on my radar at all when I was a graduate student. In fact, just one year before I joined UNCW, I had not even considered it as an option. I was in the process of seeking a job in the pharmaceutical industry at that time. But my postdoctoral advisors and my wife kept insisting that I was better-suited for academia than industry. So, just to please them, I sent out a few applications to different universities, and was surprised by the strong response I got. I interviewed at UNCW, got excited by what I saw, and accepted their offer. When I walked out after teaching my first class, I knew I had made an excellent decision.
Q. Besides this award, is there one particular achievement in your career that makes you especially proud?
A. I always feel great pride every time a student whom I have taught/trained goes on to become successful. I have been lucky to have had several such outcomes. One particular student, who had not been doing well academically, joined my laboratory to participate in an undergraduate research project, and was transformed into an excited and engaged student. This student then returned to my laboratory as a graduate student, excelled in graduate school, and is now having a very successful career in the pharmaceutical industry. The knowledge that I can have this kind of influence on a student keeps me determined to do my best each semester.
Q. What teaching methods do you use to engage students?
A. I believe strongly in challenging students to achieve their best, and encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning. The subject material for my courses, all revolving around organic chemistry, is built upon logic and understanding, and therefore I invest a lot of time in devising methods of teaching that ensure student comprehension, and encourage problem solving in the classroom. Students today face many challenges on the social, health and financial fronts, and these often influence their ability to succeed in school. Therefore, I always encourage students to meet me outside the classroom early and often, to head off any problems early in the semester, in order to ensure success in the classroom.