If University of North Carolina at Pembroke chemistry professor Dr. Sivanadane Mandjiny is going to teach his students about enzymes, he’ll probably open class with the story of Alexander Fleming, the Scottish biologist who discovered — accidentally, because of his messy lab — that an enzyme he named lysozyme could destroy certain bacteria. (Fleming went on to discover penicillin in 1928.)
Knowing that chemistry and biochemistry often intimidate people, Mandjiny goes out of his way to dispel fears.
“Every chemistry concept, there is a story behind it. You tell the story, you excite them — and then you teach them,” Mandjiny said. “I make it a point to make learning approachable, and I make myself available to help them with any difficulties they may encounter during the learning process.”
The University of North Carolina Board of Governors awarded Mandjiny the 2015 Excellence in Teaching award for UNCP. Since 1993, the board has offered annual excellence in teaching awards, which come with a $12,500 stipend and a bronze medallion, to one professor at each of the 17 UNC constituent institutions. The board intends the awards to encourage, support and reward good teaching, which members see as the primary responsibility of North Carolina’s public universities and the NC School of Science and Math, the country’s first public, residential high school for gifted students.
Mandjiny’s pursuit of education has led him all over the world. Born and raised in Pondicherry, a French-influenced territory in India, Mandjiny studied chemical engineering at the University of Madras in India before earning two masters’ degrees — one in biochemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi in 1981 and the other in chemical engineering from the University of Toronto in Canada in 1994. He received his Ph.D. in biological engineering from the Université de Technologie de Compiègne, France in 1992, after defending his dissertation in French, a language he could not speak when he entered the program three years prior. He completed a three-month post-doctoral fellowship in Greece.
“I have seen various parts of the world, and I see the importance of education,” Mandjiny said. “Education is the only way to reach the goal. If you have a good education, you can survive everywhere. If you do not have a good education, you cannot shine well in your life.”
Tommy Neal graduated from UNCP in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and is currently a medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. Neal appreciated Mandjiny’s ability to explain chemistry’s practical applications.
“I think a lot of students can sometimes get discouraged by being unable to recognize the significance of certain basic science concepts,” Neal said. “Dr. Mandjiny is excellent at capturing his students’ interest by incorporating examples of relevant real life applications. You realize, ‘Oh, that is why I need to know this.’ It makes learning fun and interesting.”
They Come With a Dream
Though Mandjiny may have 50 students in each classroom, he goes out of his way not only to know each student’s name, but to find out what they are hoping to achieve.
“Student success is my motivation,” Mandjiny said. “When students come here, they come with a dream. I always ask them, ‘What is your dream?’ and I work with them to make sure their dream is realized. If someone is not doing well, I approach them and talk to them to find out what the problem is. I work with them.”
One time, a young woman in his chemistry class was also working nights as a nursing assistant in a trauma center in hopes of being a nurse. Mandjiny asked if she had considered being a doctor instead. When the student said yes but expressed doubt in her abilities, Mandjiny reassured her she had what it took and laid out the steps she would need to follow.
Last Christmas, when Mandjiny was in the waiting room of a regional hospital, he picked up the hospital’s brochure and flipped through it. “I could not believe my eyes — the hospital was founded by [my student],” who had attended Eastern Carolina University and become a doctor, he said. “That made my day. I realized how much teaching can influence a person’s life.”
Mandjiny also tries to help students at the opposite end of the spectrum, students who are struggling in school. If they have low GPAs, he helps them figure out how to raise their grades and graduate, and after that, find jobs.
“The students know that if they have difficulty, Dr. Mandjiny is there,” he said. “I will not let them go.”
Teach Them How to Think
Jose D’Arruda, a physics professor at UNCP since 1974 who was in the Department of Chemistry and Physics when members recruited Mandjiny from France, admires Mandjiny’s ability to communicate with students.
“He doesn’t stand up there and talk; he gets involved with the students,” D’Arruda said. “He asks them questions and makes them think logically as he’s doing his lectures. He’s not afraid to make jokes about himself, which the students love.”
In the classroom, Mandjiny designs his lectures to build on one another so that even non-science majors will find them understandable and relatable. He builds in time for questions and answers so he can fill in knowledge gaps before moving on and holds weekly hour-long recitation periods in which he answers students’ questions on their homework.
Mandjiny moves students between the lecture room and the lab so they can transfer the principles to practice, and he also encourages his undergrads to get involved with research.
Over his nearly 20 years of service, has directed 118 student research projects in subjects including enzymes in zero gravity, biofuels, animal kidney stones and protein crystallization.
“You teach them how to think in order to carry out a project in the lab,” he said. “They learn how to think independently, how to solve problems on the bench, how to research what people have done in a particular area and figure out what their contribution is going to be.”
Neal said Mandjiny’s students love the energy and passion he brings to the classroom.
“It is easy to tell that he sincerely enjoys helping students succeed,” Neal said. “He really makes each student feel like they are and will be successful, which I think leads to the students’ success.”
Story by Christina Cook, Freelance Writer
Photos submitted by UNCP
Published November 19, 2015