Minerva Mentoring Award 2011
Five years ago, Ute Wieden-Kothe was new to the University of Lethbridge’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, new to her position as an Assistant Professor – and new to Canada.
In a relatively small amount of time, this biochemist and instructor has managed to make a large impact, evident by being nominated by her students and subsequently being named this year’s recipient of the Minerva Mentoring Award. “I care about my students and this award shows how my students care for me,” Wieden-Kothe says. “It was quite an unexpected and delightful surprise, and I am grateful to my students for this nomination. They exemplify the attitude I try to model in the classroom and in the lab – to work hard, to accomplish your goals and to do the right thing – and my students have shown that they are already great role models for others in this regard.”
Interestingly, when Wieden-Kothe was growing up in a small village in Western Germany, she never envisioned that she would be standing at the front of a classroom or working in a lab. “I always had an affinity for math and science because I liked the logic. Looking back, I’m almost shocked by how few experiments I did until I was already in university.”
Choosing to follow an educational path to a career in science was not a difficult decision for Wieden-Kothe, whose mother wanted to study chemistry, but “back in the 1960s, that wasn’t so well received,” so her mother pursued pharmacology instead.
“When I said I wanted to go into science, my mother fully supported my decision, which was good because once you announce you’re interested in science, most people try to push you toward medicine. She encouraged me to follow my heart, which was to better understand how nature works.”
“When I turned 18 and said I wanted to go into science, some people told me, ‘No, you don’t want to do that. You want to do something more social and interactive.’ But now, whether I’m talking to students in the classroom or supervising them in the lab while they learn to analyze data, I couldn’t imagine a more interactive role. Science can be an extremely social field to work in.”
Wieden-Kothe eventually chose the field of biochemistry with the original intent of going into pharmaceutical research. "In my last two years of studies in Germany, I had a fantastic professor of biochemistry as a mentor. She really was the one who got me turned on to conducting ‘real’ research and finding out new things, to push yourself to find the most interesting and most important things, not just the easy things.”
Wieden-Kothe’s workday is divided between teaching and research, but says she would be hard pressed to choose one over the other. She adds that although research is fulfilling, the real reward comes from being able to interact with students. “Although I started out as a researcher and my heart is still in the lab, I really enjoy teaching, especially seeing how students grow and learn through their struggles and successes,” she says. "You can’t excite students about conducting experiments and the power of discovery if you haven’t experienced it yourself.”
One year into her role at the University of Lethbridge, she met Linda Reha-Krantz, a highly respected biology researcher at the University of Alberta who has since become a valued mentor. "She’s a wonderful person.” [Wieden-Kothe nominated her mentor in 2012 for the AWSN Minerva Mentoring award. Read Dr. Reha-Krantz’ biography.]
Wieden-Kothe’s mentors, her two daughters aged 13 and 2, and a keen awareness of how early science education and hands on interaction can positively impact students led Wieden-Kothe to get involved in science outreach. She has participated in programs such as Operation Minerva and Bridges of Science, but more recently, was responsible for bringing the national Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program to Lethbridge.
“Let’s Talk Science is a great program, so two years ago, I got in touch with the organizers about launching it as a team effort. I’d hoped to give my grad students an opportunity to gain experience in a science outreach project and have it be more of a systematic and sustainable approach than encouraging them to volunteer a few hours here and there.”
For the past year and a half, the program has been steadily growing. The outreach team, consisting of 15 trained grad student volunteers, conquers and divides classroom presentations in and around Lethbridge. “We focus on high schools primarily as so much outreach already goes into elementary schools, which is fantastic, but we wanted to be a link between high school and the university. It’s great to have grad students involved because it’s only been five or so years since their own graduation so they can relate to the students and the students in turn learn more about the university experience."
“In addition, we wanted to create a program that is valuable to teachers, so it had to fit the curriculum and the activities needed to be challenging, interesting and of high quality. It’s not just ‘Hooray, we made bubbles!’ or ‘Whee, something exploded!’ The students need more of a relevant story and to be able to see the scientific application in real life.”
Juggling a time intensive career with the responsibilities of motherhood is not easy by any means, but Wieden-Kothe is glad that her students can look to her example and see that it is possible to have both a family and a rewarding career. Yes, it’s challenging, but the more we see it in our society, the more the attitude changes.” This belief goes hand in hand with her personal advice for students; if you truly want something, go for it no matter what people say. I believe that when I enjoy something, it doesn’t feel like work, so I don’t mind putting extra time into it,” Wieden-Kothe says, adding that amazing things happen when you combine your passion with a drive for excellence.
“Everyone should have the experience of doing something great they never imagined possible, just so they know they can push themselves beyond their own limits."