UCL Faculty of Life Sciences


Meet the Expert: Anna Newman-Griffis

15 August 2023

Anna Newman-Griffis is a queer, neurodivergent educator Plant Biologist from the US east coast. Anna joined UCL's Genetics, Evolution, & Environment department in 2022, where she focuses on creating equity and inclusivity learning environment in classrooms and labs.

Profile Picture of Dr. Anna Newman-Griffis

Could you describe your research on the flowering time and gene regulatory networks of Chamaecrista fasciculata? How did this work lead to your interest in the movement and positioning of nuclei during symbiosis initiation?

So this is a bit of an interesting question because I think it perfectly encapsulates my journey as a researcher. I actually entered Uni wanting to be a historian, but was so inspired by my first year Biology teacher Susan Singer that I decided I wanted to be a Biologist. Assisting in Susan’s work on Chamaecrista, which is a legume native to the grasslands of the upper Midwest, was critical for me because it showed me I could be a scientist.

We were doing primarily transcriptomic work, trying to determine if Chamaecrista had short day or long day flowering- essentially whether the plant needs long days or long nights to flower. I found the work fascinating, and it inspired a lifelong love of legumes, which ultimately led to my PhD thesis on symbiosis initiation.

What inspired your transition from research to a focus on undergraduate education, and what were some challenges and rewards of this shift?

I wasn’t one of those people who really enjoyed themselves doing “bench work”- once I entered my PhD it became clear to me pretty quickly that I didn’t find the actual practice of Biology research fulfilling. What I did have a passion for was education- I had been a teaching assistant during University and found it immensely fulfilling. So, I decided to combine my enthusiasm for science with my love of teaching and pursue a career in Biology education.

This by no means came without challenges - a lot of people in academia view teaching as a lesser pursuit, and some of the people around me felt I wasn’t reaching my full potential. It’s also difficult to break into teaching- I took a couple jobs where I was making less than minimum wage for my work. However, I feel more fulfilled and like I’m making much more of a difference in the world than I did before. I love working with undergraduates, and I’ve also found that education is an area where I can pursue research that feels vital and important.

You describe your role as a facilitator and guide in the classroom. Could you share some specific examples of how you have implemented this philosophy in your teaching practice.

Nearly from the start of my teaching career, I’ve practised what’s called flipped learning. In this modality, students guide themselves through material like videos and readings outside of class, and then actively engage with that information in class.

This often takes the form of a group-based problem-solving activity, which asks students to apply the knowledge they’ve gained to new questions as a group. I love the opportunity this gives me to actually engage with students, walking around the room and answering questions rather than standing in front of a screen and droning on. By my facilitating and guiding, rather than dictating, I give students the opportunity to become responsible for their own learning. This not only gives students a sense of ownership, but also helps level the playing field between students of all backgrounds.

You have a strong focus on transparency in your teaching. Can you talk more about why this is important to you?

Whenever I’m developing new content or walking into a classroom, the first thing on my mind is equity- how can I ensure that the content I teach will be accessible to as many of my students as possible? Transparency is a through line between a variety of approaches I’ve adapted to help create an equitable classroom. I’m neurodivergent, and what I’ve always observed is that too many people don’t actually say what they mean, instead relying on culturally encoded information that may not be accessible to everyone.

By doing things like being open and honest with my students and giving them a clear roadmap to success, I try to make my classroom accessible to everyone. I love a quote from Brené Brown: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” I try to emulate that for my students, and hope that they feel more able to be vulnerable themselves as a result.

How did you adapt your teaching approach during the pandemic?

This is a funny one for me because my first full-time job started mid-pandemic! Oddly enough, I feel like I became more myself in the classroom. Often when I teach in-person it can feel like a performance: I play the character Dr. Anna, and she’s funny, and bubbly, and energetic! By in essence inviting my students into my living room via Zoom, it broke down some of those walls to where I felt more like I was engaging with my students as a person. I’ve tried to carry that through now that we’re back in-person.

What do you most enjoy about taking on a new cohort of undergraduate students?

Oh boy, it’s always really fun to learn the dynamics of the classroom every new school year. Every cohort has a very different vibe- what works one year may totally fall flat the next and vice versa. For me it’s always a bit of a stressful time because I am legitimately terrible at learning names. The only way I can really get them is by making flashcards with students’ faces on one side and names on the other. So embarrassing.

What guidance or insights can you offer to an undergraduate student who aspires to build a career in the field of biology education?

My #1 piece of advice for everyone, regardless of what you want to do, is to find a mentor, or ideally mentors. With biology education, because it is an alternative career to what’s normally expected of a PhD student, your supervisor may not really know how to help you break into the field. Finding a mentor who’s doing a job similar to where you want to do is critical to helping you get the advice you need. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a series of amazing mentors during my career, without whom I absolutely would not be where I am today.

Further Information:

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