By Matt Windsor
Finally, after all those sweaty days chasing dragonflies through the wetlands of central India, 19-year-old Sami Raut, a nervous undergraduate, is ready to give her first conference talk. And then, only a few slides into her presentation, the power goes out.
“That is not uncommon in India,” recalled Raut, now Samiksha Raut, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biology at UAB. For a college student, aiming to excel in a place and time when boys majoring in engineering got all the attention, this was not an auspicious beginning.
But Raut had practiced the presentation so many times with her mentor at Hislop College, Professor Raymond Andrew, Ph.D., that she plowed ahead. “It was a nerve-racking experience; but I kept speaking, even without the slides,” Raut said. “The crowd was mesmerized because I knew the presentation so well. With that one presentation, my confidence soared, and the next thing I knew was that I loved research.”
Raut saw how Andrew was able to travel to lecture on Indian dragonflies in the United States and Europe.
“I was looking to broaden my horizons,” Raut said. “Girls were supposed to finish their education and then settle down. Only boys from engineering went to the United States — and they all had a certain ego as well. I didn’t find any other girls to talk to. I wasn’t interested in research before I met him. But he was very creative about finding ways to do research, even when there are no funds available. He showed me there was a way out. And I was the first girl from my campus to make it to the United States.”
In the early 2000s, Raut made it to UAB, where she earned her doctorate in biology and then joined the faculty ranks — a path that grew directly from her undergraduate research efforts. Along the way, she discovered that she enjoyed teaching and exchanged her research on animal habitats for a larger question: What is the best way to make sure all students can succeed in college biology?
“I have made it my professional goal to use my privilege to uplift and empower my students through teaching and, most importantly, through undergraduate research endeavors.”
The introductory courses Raut teaches are key gateways to a science or allied health career. But many students who come into college interested in those careers find their dreams derailed by their first taste of college science courses.
“I have made it my professional goal to use my privilege to uplift and empower my students through teaching and, most importantly, through undergraduate research endeavors,” Raut said. She has introduced several innovations, including peer mentoring programs, that have contributed to student success. Her own research is dedicated to studying outcomes and finding ways to improve.
The Latest Mentoring Award
This summer, Raut was one of four biology faculty nationwide to receive a mentorship award from the Council on Undergraduate Research. (Raut received the award for early career faculty.)
“I feel like this is a dedication to all of my students who have worked with me, nearly 40 so far,” she said. This is only the latest mentoring award for Raut. In March, she was honored with the inaugural Adriel D. Johnson, Sr. Mentoring Award from the Alabama Academy of Science and the Provost award for Faculty Excellence in Undergraduate Research at UAB. Last spring, she was selected to receive the 2022 research award for Outstanding Faculty Contributions to Service-Learning in Higher Education by the Gulf-South Summit on Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Through Higher Education.
After getting the news of this latest award, Raut reached out to her own undergraduate mentor. “He is now retired; but if I have achieved something, he is the first one to know,” Raut said. “He really taught me how to teach and write and become involved in research.” That is a sentiment shared by Raut’s own mentees.
One of her nominators for the Council on Undergraduate Research award was Sebastian Schormann, M.D., who just graduated as the valedictorian from the UAB Heersink School of Medicine and began his residency in internal medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
“I hope that one day I can have the same long-lasting impact on my mentees as she had on me,” Schormann wrote. “As an underrepresented minority student in her class, I remember feeling recognized and validated through the stories she would share about her own struggles as an immigrant and a woman in STEM …. After I finished her courses, she reached out to me to join her on her education-focused research projects. She told me that she had sensed my new educational aspirations and thought joining her would help me advance my career in education.
“At that point, I had no experience in academic research; but with her guidance over the next five semesters, I developed the full gamut of research skills, from project design to presentation and publication. She constantly encouraged me to push myself further.”
Raut’s success sparks an obvious question: How does she do it? The Reporter put this question to Raut; here is what she told us.
- Know your mentees well
“In my very first meeting, I try to get to know everything about the student,” Raut said. “Why are they here? Was it a high school teacher or a parent who inspired them? Each of them has a unique story. The type of research I do is very different from the typical bench science research for many of them. I let them know from my own life that good research training can empower your future.”
- Practice mindful motivation
“You have to learn how to deliver constructive feedback in a very positive way, because some of these students have never received that kind of feedback,” Raut said. “Learning how to motivate them without cutting them off was a real challenge for me. Many of my students are first-generation, and a huge proportion are from underrepresented minorities. Any feedback you give them has to be very positive and yet constructive.”
- Always keep the outcome in mind
“I always want my mentees to see an outcome,” Raut said. “That may be a publication or a grant. The majority of my mentees are published with me. And receiving a student grant gives them ownership over their projects.” These accomplishments will help, no matter what career her students end up going into, Raut says. She also encourages her students to apply to present their work at conferences, which can have life-changing results, she adds.
- Urge students to fight for their dreams
“Remembering what my mentors told me has played a very critical role in how I train my own students,” Raut said. “My undergraduate mentor always told me the sky is the limit. ‘You can dream as big as you want,’ he said, ‘because dreams are free. But if you want to dream big, you have to back it up with hard work and discipline and perseverance.’ I tell my students, ‘Apply to everything you see.’ If they are applying to a conference in Australia, they already think they are going. They don’t realize how much competition exists. You never know where you
- Never stop winning
“Many of my mentees have suffered from impostor syndrome,” Raut said. “I tell them how I cured myself of that: Visualize yourself winning. If you do that, you are already halfway there.”
- Mentors have to mean it
“It is a major time investment; there is no way around that,” Raut said. “If you just want a line on your CV, it isn’t that hard. But if you want lifelong colleagues, they will only keep in touch with you if you have made an investment. The reward is that you are training your future colleagues and, possibly, future collaborators.”
Today, “as my mentees get ready to embark on their own professional journeys, I always remind them to pay it forward,” Raut said. Most have already had some experience. “I try to provide my research students with peer-leader teaching opportunities and assign them to help mentor incoming research students. I firmly believe that this enables them to build their leadership and communication skills.”