Professors and Instructors Make UofM Happen

Professors and instructors are essential to a university education. While a great portion of their time is spent with students in classrooms and laboratories, ensuring they are successful in their academic paths, much work is done outside the classroom and on personal time.  Over the next few months we’ll be highlighting some of that work, as so much of it goes unseen, as well as looking at some of the common misconceptions about these professions.

We’ll be sharing individual profiles on our website and social media channels to help demonstrate the wide variety of responsibilities that these members carry out every day, thereby continuing to make UofM happen.

Profiles

Katinka Stecina, Assistant Professor

Physiology & Pathophysiology

“I came for a visit to see how spinal cord research is done in the labs – and I loved it immediately.”

What department and faculty/school/college do you work in?
I’m in the Physiology & Pathophysiology Department in the Spinal Cord Research Centre (SCRC).

What are some of the projects, research, or publications you’re working on right now?
We are one of the few labs in the world succeeding with applying designer receptors into spinal neurons. I am very excited about this project and I hope to get our publications out to the scientific community and gain valuable feedback soon.

How did you become a professor at the UofM? What career path did you follow?
I was an NCAA Division I Athlete basketball player in North Carolina, USA. My Honour’s Biology professor got me interested in neuro science and encouraged me to go to grad school. He put me in touch with the SCRC in Winnipeg and I came for a visit to see how spinal cord research is done in the labs – and I loved it immediately.KStecina

During my Master’s program, I learned more about doing research and I was able to get scholarships to continue my studies. I did my PhD at the University of Manitoba in physiology, with a specialization in life sciences. My research was focused on spinal cord and neuroscience and how spinal neurons integrate and work with each other to organize walking. The purpose of my research is to find better strategies for people recovering from injuries like stroke or spinal cord injury.

What are your biggest daily challenges as a professor?
It can be hard to balance long hours in the lab with my responsibilities for my family and children. It’s always tricky trying to fit everything in, from homework to their after-school work activities and all other “family things” and at the same time, keep publishing results from the lab.

Because of the increasing cost of a university education, many students have to take on a full or part-time job during the year. Do you see the effect of this reality in your classrooms?
Yes, I’ve always noticed this – although, these days it is more like “a must”. This can actually have positive effects too – some of my students who are committed to work in addition to school tend to be much more organized and better prepared than others without the extra responsibilities.

I tell my students to keep their part time job to help them stay on top of things. It’s really difficult to get grants, scholarships, and funding. I’ve noticed - it’s especially bad for international students. I think it’s really important that the Naylor Report suggestions are taken for the sake of grad student training.

A new summer student recently told me that she made more money waiting tables than going to grad school – it’s hard to make that sacrifice and choose further studies when the funding isn’t there to support students. We need to make it more secure, accessible, and attractive to continue to do research.

What makes your role unique in your department or faculty?
Each lab in our Department is a unique “island” of its own. This is because our research varies so widely. Yet, we depend on each other for collegial support and feedback as well as for sharing resources efficiently. So, I do not really consider myself more unique in our Department than any of the other labs.

Many people assume professors take the summer off, is this true?
I wish it was true! The dynamics of our work changes in the summer, and I always try to commit more balanced time for “family” and “work” programs, while in the winter the work programs take up the majority of my time.

What’s the best part of your job?
The interactions with students, colleagues, and such a wide range of people in all areas: location, knowledge base, interest, cultural backgrounds etc. I love learning from others and discovering more about the “details” – little things in life that can help us to be more considerate, efficient, and aware of how we perform different tasks, our research, and teaching.

I also love being able to test an idea using the right tools. Asking questions like, “Can we develop another treatment method?” or “Can we develop another, better way of testing things with human subjects?” I see a whole world of opportunity to use the equipment we have access to and try new things.

Are you involved with communities outside of the UofM as part of your academic work? If yes, why is public engagement important?
I am an active volunteer at my children’s school, coaching sports, and participating in outreach programs through the university. I do outreach with the neuro science network in Manitoba. For example, I help with the high school neuro science competitions. These engagements are important so that our society will be open to working with each other and learn how to better help each other in daily life.

 

Derek Krepski, Assistant Professor

Mathematics

“I’m always looking for patterns within a defect of a pattern.”

What department and faculty/school/college do you work in?
I work in the Department of Mathematics in the Faculty of Science.

What are some of the projects you’re working on right now?
I’m currently focused on research in an area of geometry or algebra that some people call higher structure, or higher categories. The “higher” here means more hidden. Mathematics is all about structure and trying to understand rules and patterns. Occasionally, you come across something that you thought followed a certain pattern and you have to discover how far off it is from the pattern you thought it was going to follow. I’m always looking for patterns within a defect of a pattern. This theme is something I’m gravitating towards in a couple of projects I’m working on right now. It’s all about adjusting perspectives in order to move forward.

How did you become a professor at the UofM? What career path did you follow?
I got my PhD at the University of Toronto and from there I did two post-doctoral fellowships, one at McMaster University and the other at Western University – I left halfway through that second post-doc because I was offered a job at the UofM.

My area of study and research has been in geometry – more specifically, symplectic differential geometry which is a mix of algebra and calculus.Derek Krepski

What does an average week look like for you as a professor at the UofM?
I don’t really have an average week. Each term feels different. During the fall and winter terms, I’m focused more on teaching. I usually teach one large service course (like first year calculus) which can be very time intensive because of how many students are in each class, usually upwards of 100. I spend a lot of time helping students over email. The rest of my week is usually filled with meetings for committees, and any time I have left over is used for research.

What are your biggest daily challenges as a professor?
I feel lucky that I get to do something I’m passionate about every day and things are generally positive. My biggest challenge is managing time. I feel like I’m half teacher and half researcher. Sometimes the two mix, which is great. But sometimes they don’t. I don’t want to say no to students or meetings, but a challenge to then fit in research.

Because of the increasing cost of a university education, many students have to take on a full or part-time job during the year. Do you see the effect of this reality in your classrooms?
Yes, definitely. On the one hand – it can be an issue if students can’t make lectures because of work commitments. I really want students to come to class and participate, ask questions, and get the most out of their educational experience. On the other hand, I understand if a student needs a job in order to get an educational experience in the first place. It’s unfortunate that this can have negative impacts on their learning experiences.

Are you involved with communities outside of the UofM as part of your academic work? If yes, why is public engagement important?
My research is theoretical in nature – there’s not always a particular application in mind. Although I’m studying these theories and concepts for their own sake, someone could always pick up one of these ideas and find a way for it to benefit humanity directly sometime in the future.

I think it’s generally important for everyone in the department, and mathematicians in particular, to take opportunities and show people that math is great and it’s not scary. Sometimes I get to do a guest lecture, or run math contests to get kids in K-12 system excited about doing math. Math can be fun, as corny as it sounds.

What do you think are the most common misconceptions about professors on campus?
When I say I’m a mathematician, I tend to hear a lot about people’s insecurities related to math. There seems to be a prevalent and common distaste for math. I try to communicate that mathematics can be creative as you’re trying to work through thoughts and ideas in order to place them in a certain framework. But it can be hard to describe exactly what my research in geometry looks like since it’s more on the theoretical side, done through reading, pen, and paper, and writing things out on a whiteboard.

What’s the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is that I get to keep learning. In a broad sense, I continue to do that same things and teach similar topics, but because of the research element, I get to live the student experience forever. I’m always looking in textbooks and journals and discovering new research and other people’s unique ideas. I love that I get to maintain an attitude of lifelong learning. It’s exactly the experience I want my kids to have – to be lifelong learners.

In some definition of the phrase, I’m “making it” as a mathematician, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t find it hard. I read papers or textbooks and I’m always trying to learn something new but it still feels difficult at times. Sometimes it’s frustrating but it’s also so satisfying when an idea or concept finally clicks. I love that my job allows me to experience that feeling.

 

Emily McKinnon, Instructor

Access and Aboriginal Focus Programs

What department and faculty/college/school do you work in?
I work in the Division of Extended Education, in the Access and Aboriginal Focus Programs.

What projects are you working on right now?
I’m focused on increasing the success of Access students in science and math at the university level.  Our program has ~180 students, representing students in many faculties and degree programs.  About 85% of our students are Indigenous, the rest are newcomers, northern residents, and low-income students. One of the unique and most beneficial things the Access Program offers is that we teach our own first year courses. For example, I teach first year biology in a special, small section, offered only to our students – the regular sections of the same course have over 200 students per class and my classes are usually less than 20. I am also responsible for supporting our students in math and other science courses, by organizing tutors (free for Access students), study sessions, extra workshops, and connecting them with resources on campus.

How did you become an instructor at the UofM? What career path did you follow?
I studied migratory songbird ecology during my PhD at York University and continued that research in my post-doctoral fellowship at University of Windsor. I taught courses as a sessional instructor in biology at the University of Winnipeg and University of Manitoba during my postdoc.

My role with the Access program is my first move to a position focussed primarily on teaching. The Access program is designed to support students facing barriers and help them succeed in academia. I work closely with personal counselors, Indigenous elders, and academic advisors to give students holistic support throughout their university experience.E.McKinnon

What does an average week look like for you as an instructor at the UofM?
I spend most of my time teaching and working directly with students. Access Program is located at Migizii Agamik so I get the chance to attend ceremonies with our grandfather-in-residence Wanbdi Wakita, and other cultural events, and learn about various ways to support our students in a culturally sensitive way. I also run workshops every week to give our students extra learning opportunities related math and science courses.

Because of the increasing cost of a university education, many students have to take on a full or part-time job during the year. Do you see the effect of this reality in your classrooms?
Most of our students get student aid or band funding. But this is usually just a drop in the bucket. Many of them still need to get jobs to support themselves and often their dependants. By the time they get to their second year, it’s almost a guarantee that they have to work as well as attend classes.

The provincial government just recently cut all of the Access bursaries (some students in Access previously got a non-repayable bursary to top up their student loans; for the first time, this is no longer available to our students). If you have to get a job as well as keep up with school work, then you’re distracted from studying and it inevitably impacts your grades. It makes it harder for students to get into highly competitive professional degree programs like medicine. It means we aren’t feeding these students into the pipeline for professional health careers and the end result is a diversity and inclusivity problem.

If students aren’t taking advantage of all opportunities available, it’s because they’re working, paying for daycare, or helping care for extended family.

What do you think are the most common misconceptions about instructors on campus? What do you do in addition to teaching?
People assume I do research. And people always think I have summers off. I’m actually really busy in the summer. I run summer camps for northern students during the summer, a math prep camp for Indigenous students, and we do extensive orientation for incoming Access Program students. In the Access program we also interview every new student we take into the program. There’s always lots going on!

What makes your role unique?
There aren’t a lot of full-time instructors in Extended Ed compared to a traditional faculty like Science or Arts. Furthermore, in Access, instructors have a really unique role because of the holistic way we approach things. We work as a team to provide a strong emotional, spiritual, physical, and academic supports for our students. It’s really a model system that would benefit so many students.

Why are instructors important to university life?
We’re teachers that interact with students on a daily basis. We allow professors to focus on their research while we provide the backbone by teaching many intro and core courses. In first year especially, this is where we can help students get on their feet. We want to set them up well for their whole degree, so they can excel in upper year courses, and work on their own research with professors in their senior years. They wouldn’t make it to the honours level without the great instructors teaching them along the way!

 

We'll be sharing more profiles over the next 2 months.  Keep watching the website, UMFA Facebook and Twitter! Share the posts and use the hashtag #WeMakeUofMHappen.