They look too young to be faculty.
But over the last year, Emily Buginsky and Tamr B. Atieh have shepherded dozens of undergraduates through the rigors of chemistry lab.
“Does anyone have questions about what to do today?” Atieh asked as students gathered around him recently inside a sprawling basement laboratory on the Cook-Douglass Campus. “It’s relatively simple.”
Buginsky, standing halfway across the room, was addressing a similarly-sized group of her own, speaking in upbeat, reassuring tones as she went over the instructions for the day’s experiment, which involved adding hydrochloric acid to separate out different components in a mixture.
“They’re worried – they don’t want to do anything wrong,” she said later. “They don’t want to blow anything up.”
Buginsky, of Clifton, and Atieh, of Holmdel, are seniors in the School of Arts and Sciences, graduating this spring with degrees in chemistry.
They’re also participants in an experimental new program that trains upper-class chemistry majors to serve as undergraduate teaching assistants.
The teaching assistants help staff the Introduction to Chemistry Experimentation course – a lab class that’s in high demand and required for students pursuing science and technology fields - everything from engineering to pharmacy to biology to nutritional sciences.
The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology started the teaching assistant program several years ago, seeking to offer its highest-achieving students more responsibility, and provide an extra layer of instructional support for the mostly first and second year students taking the lab.
“It’s great for the kids taking the lab, and it’s great for the kids teaching the lab,” said John Brennan, a chemistry professor, and vice chair overseeing the department’s undergraduate program “Who could ask for anything more?"
Atieh and Buginsky, who were recruited by their professors, knew their stints as teaching assistants would look good on their resume. But what they didn’t realize is how much the experience would shape their own decisions about the future.
Buginsky, for example, had long figured she’d get a Ph.D. in chemistry and pursue a career in research. She has decided, however, to become a teacher. She intends to enroll in the Graduate School of Education for chemistry and physics education.
“I realized I loved teaching,” she said.
Atieh, who has his sights set on medical school, said the program brought him closer to his goal by helping him refine the people skills he’ll need to become a physician.
“If you want to go into medicine, you have to interact with patients,” he said. “What’s really interesting about the TA program is that I’m interacting with students from many different fields, and all of them have different needs.
“You need to try to help each individual. You just can’t treat everyone the same.”
Buginsky and Atieh and other students received special training during the spring 2012 semester in which they learned about safety and ethics issues, as well as how to effectively lead a class.
Although the actual course is taught by a professor, the teaching assistants handle much of the work, delivering pre-lab lectures, answering students’ questions, and generally supervising each session.
“They are in charge – and it’s a fabulous thing,” Brennan said. “Graduate schools love to see that students are trained as teaching assistants, and medical schools happen to like the fact that they’re totally reliable and dependable.”
Professor Anna Kornienko, who worked with Buginsky and Atieh during a course over winter session, agreed.
“I don’t treat the TAs as students. I treat them as coworkers,” she said. “We work as a team.”
During the lab, students are constantly wandering up to Buginsky and Atieh to ask a question. At other times, the two walk around observing students’ work, and hovering when needed.
Joannah Konecny, a sophomore, said the teaching assistants are particularly good at explaining difficult chemistry concepts in plain language. Like many of the students taking the lab, Konecny is not a chemistry major. She’s studying nutritional science with the goal of becoming a registered dietician.
“I find them quite helpful,” she said. “Since they are close to our age, they are more on our level, and can explain in a way that connects with us.”
Buginsky was initially hesitant to become a TA, citing a heavy workload and two jobs. But once she started last fall, she realized that teaching comes naturally to her.
“I’m the first person in my whole family to go to college, so when I come home, I’m always teaching my mom things in chemistry,” she said. “I love explaining things to people and I love when they finally get it.
“In the lab, I might explain the same thing 10 times, but someone may not get it, so you have to explain it in another way. Then the light bulb goes off and they understand it.”
Atieh said he relished the challenge of working with students who know little or nothing about chemistry.
“I don’t want them to just follow instructions and forget about it,” he said. “I want them to actually understand what’s going on.”