CELS Lab Manager Awarded Staff Excellence Award for Motivating Science Skills

By Hannah MacDonald, CELS Communication FellowLinda Forrester spent much of her career as a researcher out at sea traveling between California and Hawaii to study processes like the global cycle of silica and the impacts of diatoms in the ocean.

While the extensive travel and fieldwork offered an exhilarating lifestyle, it conflicted with Forrester’s desire to start a family. “After we had children, I didn’t want to go offshore to do research anymore,” states Forrester “It’s a lot to travel and conduct research full-time. With children, I became a lot more interested in teaching.”

Her journey eventually led Forrester to enroll in the University of Rhode Island’s teaching program where she earned a certificate in teaching high school science in 2006. This coincided with the College of the Environment and Life Sciences’ (CELS) search for someone to run their introductory biology labs. The position was a perfect fit for her newfound skills in teaching young adults about science and her years of experience as a researcher.

As the manager, Forrester designs and modifies the material that students learn in the undergrad biology labs, ensuring that their lab experience is aligned with what they learn in lectures. In addition, she works to build students’ research skills using lab equipment, collecting and analyzing data. With biology faculty, Dr. Rachel Schwartz, they developed an introduction to data analysis and basic coding to provide the students with experiences that prepare them for a future in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. “Since I started, the intro bio lab program has grown dramatically and we have developed new materials to meet the needs of new careers,” states Forrester. Through the years she has been leading the labs, the first-semester Introductory Biology labs have doubled from twenty sections to over forty reaching over 900 students in a single fall semester.

“I like to consider the mindset of the students and how to motivate them to become lifelong learners,” she explains. Forrester began annual training for Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs), helping new GTAs learn to lead labs in an environment that fosters continuous learning and skill-building while covering the material relevant to biology. Forrester also started an Undergrad Teaching Assistant (UTA) program, training successful undergrads to help the GTAs and the students in the lab. For UTAs, this starts as a practicum course where they receive credit for teaching and evolves into a job where they are hired to lead future sections. This opportunity for students is a valuable career-building step that enables them to advance their science and teaching skills.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and labs were forced to close, Forrester was still determined to give the students an experience that would still build their researching skills. “As soon as we decided we were going fully online, I worked nonstop with my assistants to create an online version of lab work,” she explains. “Lab is not going to be the same online, but online students can learn better computer, data analysis, and coding skills. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.” To maintain momentum in these labs, Forrester developed take-home-lab kits allowing students to get hands-on experience while at home. Her diligence in transforming labs online is one of the factors that led to the Excellence Award. “I was very honored that they were appreciative of what we were doing to keep the labs going,” says Forrester, who credits the entire biology department, the deans, and especially the lab assistants and TAs for making this all possible.

Forrester looks forward to getting students back into the lab to gain research skills and experiences in the fall. She plans to incorporate some aspects of online learning, like virtual TA help sessions and online computer assistance, to continue moving these labs forward.

The recipients of the Excellence Awards were nominated by their peers and by students and demonstrate an extraordinary commitment to their job and the university. CELS is fortunate to have Linda Forrester on our team to advance the college and build students into career scientists and lifelong learners.