An Interview with Dr. McMahon

It’s late August, and a butterfly flits among the prairie flowers, unaware that it is taking it’s last sip of nectar. Armed with poison, nets and little plastic baggies, a pack of Intro Biology students are on the prowl. The student’s winged victims will be the subject of a series of labs, starting with morphological taxonomy and ending with DNA barcoding. Ultimately, the butterfly will join victims of years past in an ongoing diversity assessment of the Brown Family Environmental Center. The mastermind behind this annual slaughter of lepidoptera? Professor McMahon, lead director of Introductory Biology labs at Kenyon. I’ve come to ask her a few questions.

What do you find most rewarding and challenging about your job as lead instructor and director of the introductory biology labs?

The most rewarding part of this job is the time I spend in the classroom during a laboratory or in my office speaking to a student one-on-one. The directing part is the most nerve-wracking.  

When I first stepped into the job almost 10 years ago, I was working with colleagues who had a lot more experience doing the labs than I had. It felt presumptuous to step in and tell them what to do. As the course and I grew together, I started making changes. I tried to transform it into something more collective. One of the big challenges with the job was not just figuring out what labs to include but also to things to take out. I’ve tried to keep a certain pace – challenging but not overwhelming.

Your listed areas of expertise are plant secondary compounds and pedagogy.  You’ve been studying the synthesis of cyanogenic compounds in cassava since grad school. When did you your interest in pedagogy begin?

My interests in pedagogy started when I became the lab director, because I had to create an argument for why a liberal arts education and lab together were such a meaningful experience.  At first I was really thinking about how students learn STEM. When I became involved in the KEEP program, I started focusing more on understanding the new challenges and perspectives that students bring with them. Recognizing that there need to be different approaches to teaching based on the subset of students with whom you’re working enriched how I consider my role here at Kenyon.

Through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant, which was written by Dr. Hofferberth to fund innovative pedagogical practices in Kenyon’s STEM departments, the teaching assistants for Bio 109 and 110 received extra training this year. They read pedagogical literature and we discuss approaches for being more inclusive in the classroom. We also have open lab nights called “Monday night jam” where students have a space to do work and ask questions. We hope that having a space and student mentor to work with will create a supportive learning environment and help them feel more involved in the science community

Within the biology department, there is a lot of emphasis on peer and faculty mentorship; I almost never see your door closed.  As a professor do you still have mentors of your own?

Very much so. Probably my first friend and mentor here is Dr. Hicks. She was the very first Kenyon professor I met because our children were in the same summer camp. I’d heard she was a fellow plant biologist so I walked up to her and said, “Hi, I think I need to know who you are”. Dr. Hicks  helped me become a visiting professor here and then the biology lab director after that. I still go to her to discuss classroom strategy and how to deal with issues related to but not inside classroom.

As a mentor, what challenges do you see students struggling with the most?

In the past, students used to come speak to me almost exclusively about classroom content. Maybe it’s because I have grown older and more established in the department, but in the last three or four years, students would share personal problems with me much more frequently than they used to. Students who are struggling with issues outside the classroom have a more limited mental band-width to devote to their course work, so it’s important that those needs outside the classroom are addressed first before tackling the things going on inside the classroom. I’m not a counselor, but I think a big part of my job is almost like counseling. I don’t often give advice on personal matters but I do try to provide a space where students can feel safe and speak.

What about your job still surprises you?

When I drive from Mt. Vernon, come down that hill and see the spire of Old Kenyon just peeping above the treeline, I still feel thrilled that I get to come here and interact with thoughtful and intelligent people every single day. Not many people can say that. I’ve learned so much from the people with whom I’ve worked – both the students and faculty. The level of intellectual engagement is such a charge.

If I had to go back and create the ideal job into which I’d want to step someday, this would be pretty close to it… I think I have my dream job. Not many people can say that either.

A worn copy of The Panda’s Thumb by Stephen Jay Gould rests on Dr. McMahon’s desk. A gift from her college professor, The Panda’s Thumb was one of McMahon’s first introductions to creative storytelling in science.

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