Student Spotlight: Anna Levina

Anna Levina

The subject of plant breeding and genetics Ph.D. student Anna Levina’s research is familiar to most people—in fact, it’s arguably America’s favorite snack food: potato chips. Levina’s research aims to improve the nutrition and color in potato chips, working closely on metabolite levels in potato. “I always wanted to work on something that can be applied in real life, and working on breeding and improving potatoes allows me to do that,” Levina says. “I can see the application of potato breeding anywhere from the grocery story to the farmers’ market, and it’s very enjoyable to talk to people about where their food comes from.”

Levina adds that her research is particularly important as the world population continues to grow and nutritional deficiencies continue to be a major problem in many parts of the world. She says that plant breeding research can make it possible to grow crops in areas they are not typically fertile, which can hopefully help address world hunger. “I’m particularly interested in applied biology because I feel that we should be able to apply our research for the benefit of humanity.” 

In addition to her work in the field of plant breeding and genetics, Levina teaches introductory biology courses and aims to incorporate her research into her lessons to show how biology is an important part of everyday life and the types of careers available in the field. In hopes of bettering her teaching techniques, Levina has become an active participant in future faculty development programs from Cornell’s Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL at Cornell). Levina was most recently a local discussion leader for the CIRTL Network’s massive open online course (MOOC), An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching, which was held this past fall. “I have always wanted to learn more teaching techniques that are backed up by research. I felt that I wasn’t given very much training as a TA, so I wanted to learn more,” she explains.

Levina’s role as MOOC discussion leader required her to help come up with activities and topics for in-person meetings for Cornell participants in the course, which she says “featured videos, quizzes, and peer-reviewed assignments where we got to try our hands at creating lecture outlines, lecture goals, and whole lesson plans.” She says this course has directly influenced her teaching practices, and she intends to incorporate many of the teaching strategies she learned in the course—such as “jigsaw” assignments, clicker questions, and group exams—into her future lesson plans.

To further enhance her teaching techniques and practices, Levina has also been involved in the Cornell Prison Education Program. In this program, Levina and a team of her peers taught introduction to genetics at Cayuga Correctional Facility. Levina notes that the teaching practices she learned in seminars like CIRTL’s MOOC helped her in this program, where she often had to adapt her teaching techniques depending on how well the students understood the subject matter, and depending on the prison’s limited resources.

“I got to use techniques I learned in some of the teaching seminars I attended, and teaching in the prison further helped me refine my teaching techniques and ability to explain concepts without many technological aids. We only had a chalkboard, a DVD player, and an overhead projector. We also taught only once a week and had no contact with students outside of class, so we had to make sure that we explained the homework and all the concepts well,” she says. “It was a very rewarding experience.”

Levina will be finishing her Ph.D. within the year and hopes to secure a faculty position that emphasizes teaching. “I would love to teach more intro biology classes in the future,” she says.

Interview by Sally Kral, communications and outreach assistant in the Graduate School