When Dr. Anurani Persaud graduated in 2008 from Trent University with a PhD specializing in watershed ecosystems, she had two goals: one was to teach in a university setting and, where she could, share her research experiences with undergraduate and graduate students, and the other was to help improve environmental policies by bringing scientific knowledge to their development and implementation.
Eight years later, Dr. Persaud is achieving both of those goals. In 2016, she started working at the Peterborough regional office of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) in a science role. In this full-time, permanent position, she is able to apply her experimental design knowledge and understanding of ecological and scientific principles to developing scientifically sound protocols and guides, among other things. On a voluntary basis, she contributes to the community garden at the MNRF. “It’s a worthy cause, since all of the produce grown there is donated to the Mental Health Association in Peterborough.” She’s also on the MNRF’s “Inclusion Council, which aims to make a more inclusive working environment in the ministry,” she explains.
As well, since graduating, she’s been teaching at Trent as a contract instructor in both Environment and Resource Science/Studies (ERS) and the Biology department. In the winter 2016 term, she taught Advanced Ecology. Though she isn’t teaching in fall 2016, she might in winter 2017 – “I try to teach in a “trickle” now,” as it’s sometimes challenging to multitask, given her full-time job at the MNRF and her young family (she and her husband have two children: a girl, 10 and a boy, 6).
Her teaching had been steady over the years prior to starting at the MNRF. “Some years, I taught one or two courses, while other years, it would be three or four,” she says. “I’m lucky to have had those opportunities.” She also feels lucky to have secured a job with the MNRF: part of the reason she sought full-time work outside of Trent is because there was no guarantee she’d be offered enough courses every term. As tenured faculty retire, she speculates she may have the opportunity to return full-time to teaching: “I’m interested in continuing to teach now and in the future.” Although she thinks the number of contract hires has been increasing, she says contracts do “create opportunities for some people to teach who might not otherwise have the opportunity. But there are challenges associated with this, in terms of continuity for the students,” she says, explaining that if the same instructor teaches one course from year to year, it “works well – because the students within a given program are moving forward with a similar knowledge base.”
Whatever course she teaches, Dr. Persaud aims to incorporate her areas of expertise: environmental science, biology, ecology, experiment design, project development, etc. “My philosophy is to bring what I’ve learned through my studies, research and fieldwork into the classroom. But students also come with a wealth of experience and knowledge, and I always learn from them. So I’ve increasingly tried to structure my teaching so they can share some of that, and to figure out how their knowledge and experiences fits in with the theory we teach.”
This was inspired in part by teaching at Fleming College in 2011: “I got a real eye-opener as to how theory-focused some university programs can be,” she continues. “It inspired me to change the way I teach, both the format and the content. I started drawing more on my experiences in the field and using real-life examples – students are better able to relate to that in the classroom.” As a result, she says, she’s noticed a higher student success rate, as well as “a different classroom dynamic. Those hard lines between professor and student aren’t there anymore, and it has had a positive impact.”
Students appreciate her efforts to make difficult concepts easy and demonstrate the applicability of scientific concepts: “One of the best comment I’ve received on my teaching is that I speak in a language students understand. Sometimes instructors find it challenging to modify and play with scientific language, but I’ve made an effort to make it more palatable, so there’s better uptake and retention of the information.”
Labs are another opportunity to engage students and show them the practical side of theory. “You can be more creative with the labs!” she says. For Advanced Ecology, Dr. Persaud gave students data on lakes around the Kawartha region that she’d accumulated during a post-doctoral fellowship at Trent, along with some questions to answer by crunching the data. “In grad school or in real life, they’ll need to apply the ecological principles learned in the classroom. By providing students with real data, they have the opportunity to think beyond the classroom.”
“That’s the kind of stuff I really enjoy,” she adds. “Delving into a mini-research project makes the students think.” It turns out that “students loved it. One student said they’d been collecting data on stable isotopes for a summer job, and now they finally knew what the data meant and had an understanding of how to apply the theory.”
Raising a young family means “I’m always multi-tasking!” says Dr. Persaud. In fact, she had her first child while she was still a PhD student, which was “a challenge – I remember breast-feeding and writing my thesis! For me, success is being able to balance my academic work and personal life.”
She encourages both of her children to develop a love of the outdoors, something she experienced growing up in the tropics: “I remember when I was 8 or 9, during siesta time on the hot days, I’d be up a tree – watching lizards lose their tails, and all of the insects. There were many spiders but luckily I was never bitten by any,” she reassures. Now, she takes her children to lakes in the Kawarthas and Muskokas, “to play in the water, learn about wildlife and have a blast investigating and exploring – those are the best days.”