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Meet the New Faculty: Rhea Datta, Biology


This year Hamilton welcomed six new tenure-track faculty members. Communications office student writer Majestic Terhune ’21 spent more than two hours interviewing these newest members of the faculty to find out why they chose Hamilton and what they think so far.  Here’s her interview with Rhea Datta, assistant professor of biology. (Some answers edited for brevity.)

Why did you start teaching?

I grew up around teachers. My family is one of academics, and it was very logical to me that if you’re trying to create new knowledge, you have to figure out how to communicate it. I’ve been working in a research environment for a very long time and I always wanted to be a part of a process where you do research and you bring it into a classroom and you explain the whole process. Not just the facts, but how you create knowledge. And so, that part has always been interesting to me—communicating work, communicating in a classroom. I don’t see it as telling people facts. I just see it as part of the research process.

When I was just in a lab, just doing the bench works (I’m a biologist) I realized that little piece was missing—the teaching part. And there are lots of levels at which you can teach. And for me, trying to find the right age group that would fit was part of the puzzle. I narrowed it down after trying it a few times. This undergraduate age group ended up being the right age group for me to teach.

Why did you choose Hamilton?

I think Hamilton has the sort of model I’m looking for where they promote independent research and encourage professors to bring that into the classroom, and students are really interested in what professors are doing outside the classroom, and there doesn’t seem to be this disconnect between research and teaching. It somehow works really well under one umbrella. And so Hamilton has a very conducive environment to this teacher-scholar model that I was looking for.

Where have you previously studied and worked?

I grew up in New Delhi, India, where I did high school, and then I came to the U.S. to attend Macalester College, a small liberal arts school like Hamilton, in St. Paul, Minnesota. There I studied Biology, Anthropology, and Philosophy, similar to what students do here when they try different interests. Then I went straight for my Ph.D. in Molecular Cellular Development Biology in Genetics to Indiana University in 2005. I finished my Ph.D. in 2010, I took a little time off to travel, and then I did my postdoctoral work at New York University. And in between that, I taught at NYU, Sarah Lawrence College, and Indiana University, but I was doing a fellowship with independent research at NYU for quite some time before I decided to find a job like this.

How has your time here been so far?

It’s been amazing. It’s met and exceeded all of my expectations. I think I was expecting the students to be involved and demanding and curious and intellectually looking for challenges, and I found that to be true. My students in my classes and my seniors are very engaged. I’ve found the college and the new administration to be very supportive of new faculty. They’ve given me a lot of room and resources to do my research, which I do with undergrads. I think it’s been wonderful.

What’s one of your favorite things about Hamilton?

One has been the students. I feel extremely motivated. My students will motivate me a lot in lectures by asking new questions, challenging me, and I want to enrich them in the class. I have six seniors and two independent study students who are working in my lab, and they just want to do research, and that is very motivating for me.

The other thing that has been wonderful is the community that Hamilton tries to foster for its new faculty. I’ve met great people here who have been around the world and just want to make it a warm, welcome, inclusive environment.

Has there been anything that’s surprised you?

When I was interviewing, I didn’t realize how many resources the students have to enrich their time here. The Writing Center, the Oral Communications Center. I think that’s been a very welcome surprise. I think there’s been a lot of pieces in place so that professors can get to the synthesis of knowledge part that they’re trying to get to. When I’m reading papers, I’m not editing them necessarily. So that’s been a very welcome surprise. It allows me to teach at another level.

Do you have any experiences at Hamilton that stick out to you?

When I came here over the summer, I came in ready to set up my lab and I had two students reach out to me to work with me over the summer. I was like, ‘sure, I don’t really have research going, but if you’d like, you can help me clean up the lab.’ They were so dedicated. That was my first week here, and that gave me a sense of what Hamilton students might be like. They’re committed and they follow through and they’ll work hard to get it done.

What’s one of your favorite places on campus?

I barely leave my office and lab. I love that Opus is here, and I get a cup of coffee every morning, and that makes me walk around the Science Center. This is a great building to work in.

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