The Harvard chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) honor society has named MCB faculty Rachelle Gaudet as a recipient of the Alpha-Iota Prize for Excellence in Teaching.
The award, based on nominations by current undergraduate members of PBK, recognizes the outstanding work of three Harvard professors each year. “I’m thrilled to receive this award,” Gaudet says. “Teaching means a lot to me, so it is heartwarming to know that my teaching matters so much to my students. I wish I could celebrate with my students and lab members, but it will have to wait since we’re all working from home right now.”
In an effusive five-page letter nominating Gaudet for the Alpha-Iota Prize, William Ho (CPB ‘21) cited Gaudet’s work in MCB 65: “Physical Biochemistry: Understanding Macromolecular Machines” as a prime example of her skill as an educator.
“In MCB 65, Rachelle has composed a course that coherently joins protein biochemistry and structural biology, nucleotide biology and higher-level structural concepts, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, and enzyme kinetics with remarkable depth at quantitative and qualitative levels,” Ho wrote. “Furthermore, she grounds course material in the current scientific landscape by basing the MCB 65 lab component on structural biology publications. She trains students to become better scientists by having them write a lab report incorporating and analyzing data from a plethora of experiments. I personally must attribute much of my success in my further studies to her.”
He adds that by encouraging students to participate during class discussions and to interact with each other during study sessions and office hours, Gaudet has made MCB 65 a keystone class, where students can forge friendships and academic partnerships.
Gaudet also sees fostering student interactions as an important part of her job. “For many, it’s a transition from learning facts and solving problems that have a single, clear correct answer, to learning how to combine their knowledge, research additional information, and develop models and hypotheses,” she says. “I encourage students to discuss together, and talk through possibilities, which is very much analogous to how we do science research.”
Ho’s nomination letter also praised Gaudet’s dedication to mentoring students. He shares one anecdote about how Gaudet advised him when he was grappling with whether to pursue a Ph.D. or an MD/Ph.D. after undergrad.“An important trait that makes Rachelle one of the best faculty mentors at Harvard is her willingness to share her own story with students,” he wrote. “I was very conflicted. Competing pushes, from my family to become a MD and from my intellectual interests to pursue a PhD, had led me to believe I should pursue M.D./Ph.D, to avoid disappointing either…She relayed her own experience confronting the stigma that intelligent biologists always pursue medicine—a stigma that had made me afraid to even consider pursuing a PhD alone—and emphasized that I need not feel confined by it.” After consulting with Gaudet, Ho decided to try taking an HMS course and found that the M.D. approach does appeal to him after all.
Although the current crisis has made it harder for professors and advisers to interact with students one-on-one, Gaudet has been keeping in touch with her students via virtual study breaks and long-distance thesis presentations. “While working remotely, it’s harder to feel connected and to get a pulse on how people are doing,” she says. “I’ve been trying to share more stories and anecdotes about myself and how I’m doing, and encourage others to do the same…In my lab, we have been using Slack to share random pictures, like our cooking, wildlife we encounter in our outdoor excursions, and pets. My lab members have been seeing a lot of pictures of my cats…and the cats also make regular appearances on Zoom!”
“It was hard to say goodbye so quickly to the CPB seniors back in March,” she adds. “I hope they continue to stay in touch, I look forward to hearing about their adventures and accomplishments in the years to come!”