The Oberlin Stories Project

On being a biology tutor

Abigail Lofchie ’12

“I like... seeing students become comfortable with the material so that they can enjoy it instead of just seeing the class as a source of stress.”

Abigail Lofchie

On my first day of Introduction to Biology, also known as Bio 100, I was extremely nervous. I had attended a small high school — Bio 100 had as many students as my entire graduating class. In addition, I had heard from several professors and students that the class was extremely difficult. Given how quickly the professor talked on the first day, I was inclined to believe them.

Despite my fears, the class was amazing. I was completely in awe of my professors, who seemed to know everything imaginable about their subject. Although the class was large, professors Yolanda Cruz and Mike Moore learned every student’s name. Through office hours and weekly Q&As, I found that I could get as much individual help in a class of 130 students as in a class of 20. I later took Developmental Biology with Professor Cruz, an even smaller and more personal class.

I became a peer tutor — with approval from a professor — for Bio 100 and for Bio 102 (Genetics, Evolution, and Ecology), two of the three required classes for biology majors. One part of tutoring that I find most enjoyable is the process through which the students find what study habits work for them, and, as a result, become more comfortable with the material. Sometimes these habits include ideas I hadn’t tried when I was in the class, such as studying the names of different parts of plants by drawing and labeling diagrams. Another part of tutoring that I like best is seeing students become comfortable with the material so that they can enjoy it instead of just seeing the class as a source of stress. A student once excitedly told me of his discovery that in some reptiles, the temperature of the egg during embryonic development determines whether the animal will be male or female. He was so amazed by this that he shared the knowledge with his friends.

In the sciences, students work together rather than compete, and everyone — teachers and students alike — want you to do well. It is not uncommon to see peers meeting outside of class to study for tests and quizzes and to work on lab reports. Before many exams, you’ll see students studying together in the Science Center, asking last-minute review questions up until the test.

After taking Bio 102, I became interested in evolutionary biology. I found that other classes also involve evolution, as it is vital to many biological topics. In my Developmental Biology class, we learned about the similarities among vertebrate embryos and insect embryos. It was fascinating to see how a few changes in gene expression are needed to explain the differences in different animals’ body structures. My newly found interests in evolution and evolutionary biology have led me to sign up for Keith Tarvin’s Evolution class, and I have taken additional classes in the neuroscience department, which have also counted towards my biology major. I now do research in Tracie Paine’s neuroscience lab. Professor Paine studies attention and impulse control, allowing her students to conduct research in such topics as drug addiction and ADHD, my current research topic.

The teachers communicate their enthusiasm for their subjects which, in addition to the interesting topics they teach, makes the experience so much more enjoyable. I have found that many of my instructors are willing and excited to talk about their subjects after class, even if the topic isn’t material presented in classes. During Professor Cruz’s office hours, she shared stories about Rosalind Franklin, who contributed to the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure. Franklin is not as well known as Watson and Crick, recipients of the Nobel Prize for its discovery, because she died before the prize was awarded (you can’t win a Nobel Prize post-mortem). Other instructors would share popular press articles about their chosen fields with their classes.

As a pre-med student considering research after Oberlin, I find that my time as a student and a tutor will help me in the future. My time as a tutor has taught me how to learn and study effectively and how to approach research questions and lab techniques, in addition to learning specialized material. In medical school, I will continue to use these study techniques, probably adjusting them along the way with the materials, but at least I will have a starting point from which to begin.