Maggie Pasterz | Staff Photographer
Dr. Meena Vijayaraghavan, senior professor of practice in cell and molecular biology, is best known for her introduction to cell biology course that students in the premedical track as well as CMB and neuroscience majors must take, typically in their freshman year. The Hullabaloo sat down with her to discuss what talk about how growing up in forests in India fostered her love for biology and what book she encourages anyone to read.
What brought you to Tulane?
Family. I was then still married to my husband, and he moved from Michigan to New Orleans because he got a position at Tulane. He was in the engineering department — electrical engineering and computer science. When he came, I followed. I had just delivered my daughter at that time so I was off work. I had a difficult pregnancy; I was bleeding. So the option was to have the baby or have the job. I couldn’t do both. So I was prescribed bed rest and I had the baby, and my partner got the job here, and so I moved. I was with my daughter for a year. I had a difficult pregnancy and I wanted to make sure everything was fine. And then I started to look for a job. In the cell and molecular biology department, one of the faculty members was leaving. So they were looking for an adjunct. After I interviewed with Dr. David Mullin, the position was changed to visiting assistant professor. That’s how I got to Tulane. And I’m still bothering the kids here.
Why do you think your section of CELL 1010 has become as reputable as it is?
It’s a prerequisite. It’s a course that caters to different majors of students who want to be in the premed route of undergraduate. I think that’s why CELL 1010 has that many kids. This is the first course they take in their track towards premed. And I’m mostly the only one doing it. Other professors now have been taking some of the load off, but for a long time, I was teaching three sections of CELL 1010 until last year. I think that’s why I know so many kids.
You had many experiences with wildlife growing up in the forests in India. Do you have any specific stories that truly solidified your love for biology?
My dad was a wildlife conservation officer. He transferred a lot. I always joked to my kids that when I went for vacation, there was no sleeping in because I woke up to the sound of “SNAKE!” That was my six o’clock alarm. We didn’t have gas there because it was a wooded area. You can’t have natural gas there because of fires. We had a fire pit made from old trees getting cut, so it was a lifestyle there, where gas was not preferred because of the way the buildings were set up. We had bamboo passageways with spaces, so the snakes could get in. And they always came in because the earthen fireplace is very warm at night. And we cannot kill them because we’re conservation officers. So my dad had a big stick with a hook and he would fling the snake out. I woke up to that. I woke up one time to spotted deer grazing outside. I saw a wolf chase a mother and baby deer when I was playing with my dad outside, and she left the baby right in front of my dad and died maybe ten feet in front of us, and I remember not talking to my dad for days because I thought he should take a gun and shoot the damn wolf. He told me that’s not how nature’s laws work. We’re not here to interrupt it.
What can one expect in the service-learning component of your CELL 1010 course?
There are many things. Most of the students in my intro course are freshmen, although there are some sophomores and juniors, and a senior or two, I might add. But given the complexity of the audience of my class, this is mainly tailored for freshmen. And the freshmen — or whoever does the service learning — I hope will understand teamwork. It’s a seven-week teamwork course. You go and test the water. It’s not a hard service learning, but you learn things. You learn to appreciate the little things you do. When you say testing the water quality, it often looks like it’s a high school thing, or just sticking a thermometer or pH meter in. But it tells you how important the changes of the weather affect your water body. It tells you how important a certain pH is or a certain temperature. It connects the very simple, basic, foundational information of cell [biology] with everyday life. I think that’s what I’m trying to make my kids understand. There was [one] kid among the 20 who submitted the last reflection and said, “I am so sad this is my last reflection.” Even though it was one kid it was still a victory for me. I was very happy the entire day.
Besides Intro to Cell and Molecular Biology and Genetics, are there other courses you’ve taught in the past or courses you would like to teach in the future?
Cancer biology. I did research in that. I would love to, but I don’t think I have the time.
What’s one thing you would like to see Tulane improve upon?
Interactions between students and professors I think is very low. Especially because of the class size in lecture heavy classes. It doesn’t really make them understand the benefits of having a campus life. Campus life doesn’t just include interactions with students. It also includes interactions with faculty. A lot of the time kids come to me right before they need a recommendation letter from me. And I sit back and think of what the kid was like in my class. And you know, it has to be personalized. There should be an ongoing dialogue. So my request to the students would be that if you are going for a certain professional track, make sure you’re communicating with your professors so they understand your growth and they can comment on it. I think that’s very important.
What was the last book you read?
“Behind Closed Doors.” And then I read the second one, “The Breakdown,” and then I read her last book this morning. I fell asleep last night but I woke up this morning and I was like, “What’s going on? I need to read this last page to be done.” I have it in my car.
Is there a book you urge everyone to read?
It’s by an Indian writer. It’s more philosophical. “When Breath Becomes Air.” I’ve read that twice and I’ve cried both times. “When Breath Becomes Air” gives us depth into understanding life. We’re in this ever increasing speed. We always forget the fine nuances. When someone is dying, I think it’s then we get a perception of what it means to live. I’ve always brought back thoughts from that book to make me stop from the rush that I have and give importance to those who are dear to me.
If you could give one piece of advice to a Tulane student, what would you tell them?
Don’t be easily discouraged. Persevere. Persevere, persevere, persevere. If you have a dream, and your dream is a real dream, don’t let anything come between you and that dream. You have to work hard, nothing comes by luck. Success is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration. So perspire, knock on every door — Tulane offers so many resources. You have free tutoring, you have [supplemental instructors], you have office hours. You have so many venues to learn. There are some schools where there is not enough space. But here, you have the library, you have places you can learn and read. Make use of them. Always strive to reach your goal. Don’t get discouraged.
When was the last time you surprised yourself?
I think when one of the kids came here and poked her head in here last semester. And for the first time, I couldn’t recognize her. I kept staring at her and thought she was in the wrong room, so I told her, “What can I do for you?” And she says, “Dr. V,” and I thought that must come from knowing me, so I go “Yeah?” and don’t quite let her in at this point. And then she said, “Can I come in?” and I said, “Yes.” Her, the baby, and the husband. I thought somebody was going to complain to me about something because I’d never seen a whole entire family walk into my office. So I told them to come into my office. The baby comes and perches itself on my lap, so I knew I didn’t need to be on my defense and that this wasn’t some aggressive meeting. So I kept staring at the kid and she said, “You have no idea who I am,” and I said “No.” I was completely blanking out. I was in shock, because she kept saying “I was your student,” and I kept thinking, “Who?” So I was wracking my brain. And she said, “You wrote my recommendation letter,” and I thought “Oh, this is really bad.” Then she tells me her name and I thought, “How did I not know who this is?” She took my class in 2006 and was in my genetics class her junior year and graduated the next year. She finished medical school, got married, and had a baby who is three, probably, and is practicing in Lafayette. So she was visiting here and thought she would poke her head into my office. And that was my biggest surprise.
Correction: a previous version of this article stated Dr. Ann Mullin interviewed Dr. Vijayaraghavan, not Dr. David Mullin.