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‘My goal is to always dig deep and make sure everyone understands the fundamentals’

October 16, 2017
photo of Sina GhaemmaghamiAssistant Professor of Biology Sina Ghaemmaghami. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

I’m an only child, and my mother and I moved around quite a bit when I was growing up. We lived in three different countries.

I was born in Lexington, Kentucky as my father was going to medical school at the University of Kentucky. He passed away before I was born. My mother and I moved back to Iran, and I lived there until I was 10. Then, it was back to Lexington, then Louisville, then Dayton, Ohio, and eventually to Toronto, where I went to high school and college. My mother and other family members still live there.

I was very interested in computers and programming and began writing code at a young age.

I enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of it, and the fact that you could accomplish something with a computer program and know immediately that you’ve done it successfully. Biological research is not like that. It’s a lot more nebulous. You almost never quite answer a biological research question completely, and there are almost always more questions to be asked.

I didn’t know I wanted to be a professor until I was in college. Even then my interests were mostly in math and physics.

By chance, I started working in a biochemistry lab and doing research with other undergraduates and graduate students. I really loved the culture of science labs and their intellectual atmosphere. Biochemistry is interesting because it requires you to know a lot of information, but you also have to be good at problem solving and synthesizing that information.

I think undergraduates consider my class to be pretty hardcore.

My goal is to always dig deep and make sure everyone understands the fundamentals, not just memorizing facts and procedures. I really want them to actually understand the information. One of the big surprises for me has been that students are actually pretty appreciative of being taught something difficult. There is something very gratifying about going through a challenging and time-consuming intellectual journey and reach a fundamental comprehension of a concept that at first seemed impenetrable.

I developed the course, Principles of Biochemistry, which is now a core course for Biochemistry majors.

Intro Biochemistry is a very popular course. A lot of students take it. It’s fundamental to many different fields, and many pre-med students are required to take it. The department thought that instead of putting everyone in one class, it would be good to have a smaller advanced class designed for Biochemistry majors. We made the class a core requirement for the Biochemistry majors in 2015, but surprisingly, most of the students in the class are not Biochemistry majors. Many students choose to take this advanced biochemistry class, even though it’s required .

I love to lecture, but I had no experience in it before taking this job. My training had been exclusively in research. At first I considered teaching to be a service that I just had to do.

But now, I find it very intellectually gratifying. It is really interesting to try to figure out how to deliver difficult concepts in the most understandable way possible. You’re standing up there lecturing and once in awhile you make eye contact with a student as you are explaining something complicated. You can sometimes actually see it in their eyes at the exact moment they understand it. That moment is very special. It’s one of the deepest, most satisfying feelings you can have as a teacher.

When I first started teaching, I thought the best way to communicate with students was to apply the information to real-life topics they were already interested in—like diseases and drug discovery. I still do some of that, but I have realized that there is something more important that I need to do.

My primary goal now is to convince students that the core topic is in itself intellectually interesting, not just its potential applications. Biochemistry may seem hard and obscure, but some of the smartest and most interesting people in history have thought about these problems and have made these discoveries.  I try to convince my students that biochemistry is in and of itself fascinating. If I can sell that, students are more willing to do the hard work.

My wife used to be a chef, and we eat very well. But our food tastes are a constant source of debate.

Brenda likes fine dining and sophisticated cuisine. I’m a lot more low-brow. My favorite place to eat is Dogtown (a local restaurant that names its hot dogs after dog breeds). I am satisfied with hot dogs, pizza, and chicken wings.


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