By Brooke O'Neill
Photo by Chris Strong

Neurobiologist Melina Hale has always appreciated the enthusiasm graduate students bring to her lab. She knows their curiosity—and expertise—will fuel her own thinking as she investigates the neuromechanics of how animals move in their environments. As a mentor, she aims to fuel their professional pursuits and help them become independent researchers.

What does the award mean to you?

I’m so honored and thankful that the students would put me up for it. It means more than anything coming from them. We spend so much time in the lab and working together, so it’s very special for me.

What’s your teaching philosophy?

Our graduate students go on to many different career paths after graduate school, so mainly I try to figure out what each individual student really needs to achieve their goals. Because our students come in with such a strong knowledge base and so much passion for what they’re doing, I find my role to be less about teaching specific concepts and lecturing than about helping them find ways to learn independently and to develop their own interests.

Who inspires you as a teacher?

The students. They come in so excited about graduate school and their research projects. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and so we as faculty take advantage of that. In science, we need to have new ideas and people coming up in the field to build our community. These are the brilliant young men and women who are going to take over and do amazing things.

What about role models from your own graduate school days?

Well, I was a grad student here at Chicago in Michael LaBarbera’s lab. Mike was—and still is—a wonderful teacher and mentor. He allowed us to pursue our own questions and be very independent, yet was always a sounding board. We also had a strong community of peers. Junior students would learn from the more senior students, and senior students tried to support the junior students.

What do you most get out of teaching?

I learn so much when I teach. I think I learn more than the students do. To me, graduate-level teaching is a way to have time to really dig into primary literature, explore it in depth, and have discussions with really smart people. It always makes me think in different ways about what I’m doing.

What’s special about teaching UChicago graduate students?

Our students are fabulous. They’re so creative, so thoughtful. They have their own ideas and are amazing at getting into those ideas in really deep ways, as well as bridging and understanding the broader context for their questions. It’s really like having a big community of colleagues. I go to my students all the time with questions about the topics that they’re experts on.

What advice do you have for future professors?

I’ve found it useful to try to understand, as much as possible, the student’s perspective. It’s easy to get into a routine where you have a set of lectures that you give or a certain way of doing things, but students vary so much in how they learn, their backgrounds going into a class or research experience and what they want to get out of it, that it’s really useful to think about their individual needs and backgrounds, and how you can adapt the learning experience to them.

Originally published on June 4, 2012.