THE 2020 SDR SCIENTIFIC EDUCATION AWARD: NIRMA SAMARAWICKREMA
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
The educator I am today is because of my students. I love my teaching and enjoy my research and each enriches the other, adding value to both. Involving my students and peers, and integrating learning into this mix is what fires me as an educator!
My learning followed a traditional path of completing my BSc and MSc at the Australian National University and PhD in Molecular Parasitology/Biochemistry at the University of Queensland. I began my teaching career as a demonstrator at Kelaniya University, Sri Lanka. My students were school leavers from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, many undertaking urban relocation and experiencing study in English (a second language) for the first time. As a new academic, my approach was to convey content knowledge and dictate the learning process. However, I soon learnt that my students found Biochemistry ‘difficult’ and irrelevant to their medical careers. This feedback meant I had to find ways of actively engaging students and embedding career-connections in their learning so that they were scaffolded to succeed and become empowered to persist beyond first year. As a senior lecturer at Monash University, Australia, I continue to teach first year subjects. I coordinate units and teach Biochemistry to multiple student cohorts (medical, biomedical, nutrition and science) across the medical and science faculties. My classes are large (>700), where students come from diverse backgrounds, capabilities, expectations, with many transitioning to university from other types of work.
Mindful of this diversity in my classes, I have focused my teaching to facilitate lifelong learning in students through partnerships. My first-year students are lively, eager to learn and keen to enjoy university life. I have discovered that their voice is a rich resource in the classroom – they each have a unique perspective to offer. This learning has transformed my teaching as I have increasingly grown to consider my students as my partners in teaching and learning.
In the last ten years as I transitioned to be an education-focused academic, I broadened my research focus to include the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), while retaining some aspect of my disciplinary research. I have drawn on my disciplinary research on human papillomavirus and cervical cancer to develop learning activities now integrated into the curricula and utilised it to initiate my research interests in teaching and learning. My SoTL research focus is broadly on partnerships (students, teaching associates and academics) and on building assessment literacy that enhance teaching and learning. In recognition of demonstrating sustained leadership and innovation in education, I was elected a Fellow of the Monash Education Academy and Fellow of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia.
I love teaching Biochemistry to young students. As rewarding as it is, I feel deeply accountable as I foster the biochemists of future generations.