Plant pathology graduate student, professor recognized for teaching excellence

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Two educators in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences recently received recognition for their teaching.

Graduate student Natali Ozber won the Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Award, while her mentor, Cristina Rosa, assistant professor of plant virology, received the departmental William Merrill Teaching Award.

"I think these teaching awards speak to the dedication of the faculty and students in our department," said Carolee Bull, professor and department head. "We truly are invested in our students and their educations and their future success after their time at Penn State."  

The endowed Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Award is sponsored jointly by the Graduate School and the Office of the Vice President and Dean for Undergraduate Education. The William Merrill Teaching Award was established in honor of the late William "Bill" Merrill, a forest pathologist and faculty member who was known for his many contributions to the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Department of Plant Pathology.

Ozber, of Istanbul, Turkey, is a doctoral candidate in plant biology. She completed her undergraduate and master's degrees in engineering from Koc University in Istanbul and has been teaching at Penn State for about a year.

"Natali is hardworking and ambitious," Rosa said of Ozber. "She has been a great resource — she easily completes independent work and is always willing to spend time to mentor other graduate students in the lab.

"In addition to being a great scientist, she is an excellent teacher," Rosa continued. "Through the courses she has taught and the courses she has taken, Natali has developed her own teaching style. Teaching is one of her passions and it shows in the positive way students respond to her."

Ozber's favorite part about teaching is interacting with students. "Every student comes from a different background, so as a teacher I listen to my students and try to understand where they're coming from and how they respond to my style of teaching," she said.

"I also teach lab sections for my classes, so we're together for two or three hours. When we end up waiting for the next step, I like to sit down and get to know the students. We'll talk about their future goals and dreams. I like to have those conversations with them and get to know them better."

Ozber has taken these lessons outside of the University through her work with various outreach programs. In June and July of 2017, she taught the Upward Bound Program's Introduction to Cell and Molecular Biology course. She was solely responsible for this course, for which she designed 16 lectures and taught 10 high school students.

In April 2017, she proposed a workshop titled "Decoding DNA — The Thread of Life" and taught 40 middle school girls as part of the Graduate Women in Science outreach program. She also volunteered for "Exploration U: Community Science Night for Bald Eagle Area High School." She regularly serves as a judge for STEM poster and presentation competitions.

When she is not in the classroom, Ozber's research focuses on plant viruses and how these viruses move inside of the plants, causing infection. She also received a Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Graduate Student Competitive Grant for her research. She has submitted one paper for publication and is preparing two more manuscripts for publication.

After she finishes at Penn State, Ozber would like to continue her research while working in industry. She believes that she can transfer skills developed from teaching into an industry career. "Teaching has really helped strengthen my communication and leadership skills — something that a lot of industry jobs need," Ozber said.

"At the end of the day, it's all about having passion and enthusiasm for anything you're doing. I have that for teaching, and I have that for research. When you're interacting with students, they pick up on that passion and enthusiasm, and sharing that with them is incredibly rewarding."

Merrill Teaching Award honoree Rosa, who joined Penn State in January 2014, received the award for the significant strides that she has made to improve teaching and provide outstanding training to all students in the plant pathology graduate program, according to Bull.

In addition to teaching the foundational course for graduate education in the department, Rosa studies the complex interaction between plant viruses and other microbes, plants and insect vectors in agricultural and natural ecosystems.

She said what she likes most about being a faculty member is interacting with her students. "The students here are great," she said. "They are proud to be at Penn State, and they understand the value of an education."

Seeing how far students go after completing their time at the University is something else she enjoys.

"The best advice I've received so far is to make students comfortable in class," Rosa said. "Learning is very difficult if you are in an environment that is not conducive to dialogue or is intimidating. I see it every day — if you're not picky about the silly things and students understand that you respect them as people, they will be much more inclined to come talk with you."

Last Updated April 10, 2018