Heather Thieringer promoted to University Lecturer
Dr. Heather Thieringer joined Princeton’s Department of Molecular Biology in 2002, and throughout her career at Princeton, has demonstrated an innovative approach to undergraduate teaching by working to develop materials that capture students’ interest, engage their imaginations, and encourage exploration of STEM. Thieringer’s first task at Princeton was to develop MOL 101: From DNA to Human Complexity, a course for non-majors that fulfills the University’s STEM education requirements. The course, which she developed in cooperation with colleagues Bonnie Bassler and Eric Weischaus, focuses on current events and cutting-edge scientific techniques and has proved enormously popular.
“Heather worked on both the lectures and the labs, made the entire course more cohesive, and made it track with what is happening now in life science,” says Bassler, the Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology and current Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology.
In 2018, Thieringer transitioned out of teaching MOL 101 to focus her efforts more fully on MOL 214: Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology, a gateway course offering for students concentrating in the biological sciences or premedical studies. She started teaching MOL 214 in 2007 and presently co-teaches the course with Professors Elizabeth Gavis, Daniel Notterman and . During her 14 years teaching the course, Thieringer promoted the incorporation of active-learning strategies into lectures, added precepts to the course, and redesigned the labs.
“We're trying to put more research focused labs in place of the cookbook style labs from traditional curricula. Students are able to perform experiments where nobody knows the outcome,” says Thieringer. For instance, in one experiment students clone, sequence and analyze different random mutations in the GFP gene. Each semester there are a different pool of mutations and each lab group has their own mutation to characterize. By emulating the process of scientific discovery in modern research settings, these exercises aim to keep students invested in the outcome of their work.
At the behest of the University, Thieringer also recently developed another course specifically for the Freshman Scholars’ Institute. MOL 152: Laboratory Research in the Life Sciences is a six-week summer course in which participants engage in a research project that spans the duration of the course. Students learn to develop a research question, execute and replicate experiments, analyze and interpret data, and communicate their results in both written reports and oral presentations.
“The goal of this course is to engage students by allowing them to participate in an immersive research experience which will hopefully increase their persistence in STEM majors,” says Bassler. “MOL 152 is a remarkable success thanks to Heather.”
Thieringer has always striven to keep the classes under her purview engaging and up to date. Only someone who is passionate about teaching, and compassionate to their students, is up to this kind of task. This has never been more true than the past 18 months, as the University community has striven to adapt to the challenges posed by a global pandemic. When it became clear that in-person teaching would be disrupted by necessary public health precautions, Thieringer huddled with other STEM educators at Princeton to adjust lecture materials and laboratory projects to make them more suitable for distance learning. She devised laboratory kits that could be sent to students, which included things like pipettors and other materials that could be mailed to students and used to conduct experiments at home. Meanwhile, experiments that required more specialized materials and equipment had to be rethought and replaced.
“We used to have a cloning lab where we would give students a plasmid vector, a piece of DNA, and the enzymes needed for cloning. They would do the ligation and then transformation into bacteria. Obviously, they can't do that at home, so instead, we have them do the more difficult task of planning and designing a cloning experiment. They do what we would do behind the scenes,” explains Thieringer.
Although born of necessity, these new approaches will likely remain as part of the curriculum once on-campus learning resumes, says Thieringer. Further adjustments will doubtless be needed as the university community continues to adjust to exigencies, but Thieringer is unflappable. She says she’s never worked harder than she has in the past few semesters, but that she’s enjoying puzzling out how to keep students interested and engaged in their courses, despite the current challenges. Her outstanding contributions to teaching and pedagogy at Princeton University were celebrated by her promotion to University Lecturer in July of 2021.
Thieringer attended Smith College as an undergraduate, and completed her Ph.D. and postdoctoral work at Rutgers University. She is an advisor for Mathey College and a Faculty Fellow in the Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP), a member of the undergraduate committee in Molecular Biology, and has also served on the curriculum committee for Molecular Biology.