Student Spotlight: Chantal Koechli

Chantal Koechli

What is your area of research?

I work to understand the cycling of carbon substrates by soil microbes—our lab strives to understand what microbes cycle different carbon substrates and how this fits into the larger ecology of the soil system. To do this, we use a technique known as stable-isotope probing, in which we add an isotopically-labeled substrate to soil and track the incorporation of that isotope into microbial biomass (such as DNA). We couple stable-isotope probing with high-throughput sequencing, in order to link microbial identity with function of isotope incorporation.

How do you integrate research into your teaching or vice versa?

There’s still so much to be discovered in the microbial world. I emphasize this whenever I teach microbiology, by exposing students to cutting edge research in class (human microbiome research really engages student interests) and by having them explore microbial diversity in lab (for example, by culturing microbes from samples of their choosing). More broadly, as a scientist, I strive to incorporate research-based practices into my teaching.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

In my sophomore year of college, I read a National Geographic article on the overwhelming importance of soils for food production. I had been really interested in nutrition before reading the article but had never thought much about soil. The article concretely linked the two concepts and described soil in a vibrant way, illustrating how beautifully complex it is and how much we still have to learn from it. From then on I gravitated toward research that centered around soil and soil fertility.

Why is this research important? 

Soil is an incredibly important resource in this world, and there’s so much about it that we don’t have a full grasp on. We know that soil microorganisms are essential for carbon cycling, and thus for soil fertility and carbon storage, but we are just starting to understand what these microorganisms (or functional groups of microorganisms) are and how they fit into the larger ecology of the soil. Getting this basic understanding may, in the long term, help with predictions about soil fertility and perhaps help with remediation of soils or understanding of future climate change. There’s also been some research done that shows global carbon models improve when information about microbial processes are included, and our lab hopes that the research we are doing may be able contribute to a microbial framework for these models.

How has your background influenced your scholarship and teaching?

I attended the College of Wooster, a small liberal arts school, for my undergraduate work. At Wooster, my professors encouraged us to explore, think creatively about problems, and develop our critical thinking skills through active and inquiry-based courses and student-driven research. Being taught in such a manner helped me to incorporate this type of learning and teaching methods in the courses that I’ve taught. I also approach teaching as something to keep practicing, researching (through literature, professional development, and self-conducted research), and reflecting upon in order to become a better teacher. This mentality comes from my experience at Wooster and my experiences at Cornell, where I have come to understand learning as an iterative process that takes time and effort. This skill set and mentality have been crucial in my graduate research as well.

This fall, you participated in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Practitioner program sponsored by CIRTL at Cornell and the Center for Teaching Innovation. What attracted you to this program?

In the spring semester of 2015, I was an adjunct lecturer at SUNY Cortland. I had tried to implement active, student-centered learning strategies in the course and was doing some reflection on teaching strategies that worked and didn’t work, but I hadn’t really considered researching my own teaching. At the same time, I was reading educational literature and it really interested me. How do you effectively test whether a certain teaching strategy promotes student comprehension? And how do you figure out why it might increase comprehension? The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Practitioner program gave a nice introduction to both qualitative and quantitative Teaching as Research projects.

Can you tell me about the program and what the benefits of participating in it were for you?

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Practitioner program is a one-semester seminar series. The series covers various aspects of teaching as research, from forming a research question to quantitative and qualitative methods of carrying out educational research. Along the way, participants of the seminar develop and carry out their own Teaching as Research projects. Benefits of participating included the ability to carry out a research project, in addition to building a foundation of knowledge and skills used in educational research.

How has your participation in programs such as CIRTL at Cornell helped shape your research and/or teaching methods?

These programs have exposed me to new resources and ideas that have improved my teaching framework and helped me shape my teaching philosophy. More than that, though, I have met and shared with other graduate students and postdocs that are passionate about teaching and about improving as teachers. Forming this community of educators helps me and others feel supported in pursuing a career that is focused on teaching.

How did you become involved with CU-CIRTL and why do you feel that these programs and courses offered through CU-CIRTL are important?

During the summer, the Summer PROFessional Development series really brought CIRTL to my attention. Previously, I had seen the emails sent out, but had not really been involved. The programs that CIRTL offers are first-class professional development opportunities for graduate students and postdocs that are interested in pursuing teaching in their future careers. As universities are beginning to realize that Ph.D. training must include development for careers other than research-focused professorships, it is imperative that there be support for programs like CIRTL that provide such development.

What’s your role on the planning committee of the new Inclusive Teaching Institute for Graduate Students and Postdocs?

I helped brainstorm ideas for the Institute, I drafted the agenda for carrying out the workshop (using ideas from all participants of the planning committee), and I will help facilitate a portion of the Institute.

What are you looking forward to about the Institute? Who do you hope will participate in the program?

I’m looking forward to learning more about diversity issues and how to address them in my own teaching and life. I’m also really excited to start a community of graduate students and postdocs that are passionate about diversity issues and getting the conversation (and action!) going at Cornell! I hope, in the long-term, that all graduate students at Cornell will be able to participate in diversity training—it really should be a mandatory part of a Ph.D.!

What’s next for you?

I’m unsure about what is next. I hope to graduate this coming May/June. I would like to end up at an institution or organization that values teaching, and I’d like to continue to develop my teaching and Teaching as Research skills.

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