“To me, science feels like a giant mystery where the clues are just waiting there for you to find,” says Dr. Rachael Webster, one of our 2019 Honored Instructors who teaches Medical Microbiology.
Learning biology can be notoriously dry and difficult, but Rachael “wants to make people feel motivated to learn challenging, detailed material.” So she has put a lot of effort and thought into creating a curriculum with an “infotainment approach.”
“It is a huge challenge to translate the course material into a cohesive story that is compelling enough to keep students’ eyes from glazing over,” she explains. “Many students are either overwhelmed and intimidated by the sheer amount of information presented in many biology courses, or are bored silly because of the way the material is presented. I remember having those feelings as a student, so I push myself to design courses that I would have been excited to take.”
“I tell jokes or make the information entertaining or silly, or tell embarrassing stories about my experiences as an undergrad, grad student or a parent of young kids that relate to the material,” Rachael answers. “The students can feel how the information is relevant and feel like I understand who they are, and that I meet them at their level. It's about making the information come alive instead of just being words on a PowerPoint or in a book. ”
The Road to Teaching
Rachael’s passion for sharing scientific knowledge and making it lively and relevant dates back to childhood.
“When I was little, I would set up a classroom in front of a chalkboard in our basement and subject my younger brother to my ‘lessons,’” she fondly remembers. “In high school, I spent hundreds of hours volunteering at the local zoo and at the science museum, engaging with visitors about the exhibits.”
While majoring in biochemistry at Rice University, she again found herself making science come alive in a basement: working as the teaching assistant for an 8-hour lab held in an old building on campus called “The Dungeon.” She calls this experience the most memorable of her undergraduate academic career.
“Dr. Beason, the professor who taught the lab, was amazing! She was spunky and creative. I thought she had the best job ever— teaching labs—and I really wanted to be her when I grew up! I wanted to be around her, be her TA and soak up as much as I could from her. She was so magnetic, positive and fun despite teaching a lab in a place called The Dungeon. With that name, most students started out thinking it would be a nightmare.
“The lab was run like a real science experiment,” continues Rachael. “It built on itself each week, so you didn't want to screw up one week as you would then be in a pickle the next week. It was sooooo long and tedious. You set something up and wait—there is a lot of waiting in the lab. That is how real science works.”
This experience immersed her in the realities of a scientific career: “Having this experience as an undergrad was fabulous as I got to see what real science was like, and how to build skills and multitask while I waited,” says Rachael. “I loved the experience both as a student and TA, as I was able to introduce other students to this crazy-rigorous thing. I could make it less terrible by having fun and helping them not freak out about it, as many of them were pre-med students.”
Fortunately for her future students, Rachael continued to pursue her studies in the sciences. Graduate school brought her to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where she studied the pathogenic fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, which causes the infectious disease histoplasmosis. It was then, while explaining her work, that she fully embraced her passion for teaching science.
“I think I always had a natural inclination to be a teacher, but it took awhile for me to realize it,” Rachael says. “During my Ph.D. training, I realized what I enjoyed most was communicating and explaining my project to different people.
"You set something up and wait—there is a lot of waiting in the lab. That is how real science works.”
“I loved the challenge of adapting the material to meet the audience at a level that was engaging and interesting to them,” she continues. “One of my strengths is my enthusiasm to make boring or challenging things fun, so it was a very natural thing for me to teach science!”
She Got the Teaching Bug
After earning her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from UCSF, Rachael began teaching at any and all colleges in the Bay Area that would hire her.
For more than 15 years, she has taught many different biology lecture and lab courses covering microbiology, general biology, cell and developmental biology, biochemistry and molecular genetics at various institutions, including Notre Dame de Namur University, San Francisco State University, Dominican University and the College of Marin.
And since 2012, Rachael includes UC Berkeley Extension in her roster, where she continually racks up recommendations from her students: In evaluations, 98% of her students between 2016 and 2018 said they would recommend her to others.
“I loved this class so much that although I'm relieved to have turned in the final, part of me wishes it hadn't ended,” reports one student. “I was given so much room to be creative and think about the material in fun ways. Dr. Webster was able to keep me engaged even though the class wasn't in person.”
She not only is adept in classroom-based courses, but Rachael is also an online curriculum innovator.
She was also the first to use video commenting to engage students and shared her best practices on this with other instructors. This course enrolled 275 students in its first year, and now enrolls between 300–340 students per year.
Today, we are excited and honored to recognize Rachael’s distinguished teaching career.
“Empowering students with knowledge is a huge motivator for me,” says the teaching veteran. “When they feel more confident about themselves and excited about their future because of my class, I feel like I’ve done my job. The biggest compliment I can get at the end of my challenging courses from students is when they say, ‘OMG, that was the hardest class I have ever taken, but I learned a lot and really enjoyed it.’”