Sandi Connelly: Helping students blossom into successful individuals

Follow Kathy Lindsley on Twitter
Follow RITNEWS on Twitter

Sandi Connelly

A shelf that runs the full length of Sandi Connelly’s office in Gosnell Hall is filled with gifts from students.

Fun things: sets of crayons, a box of pasta, a flock of plush penguins large and small.

These tokens of affection mean a lot to Connelly. And now she has further proof that she’s made the right career choice: Connelly is the 2011 recipient of the Richard and Virginia Eisenhart Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Connelly came to RIT in 2007 as a lecturer and became an assistant professor in 2009. But she’s been teaching since her second year at Juniata College, where she received her B.S. degree.

High school had been easy; freshman year in college was a shock. “I got a ‘D’ in biology,” she says. “My students love to hear this story. I think they find it encouraging.”

She was considering taking time off from college, but her advisor—the same professor who gave her that D—urged her to stay and become her assistant.

“She put me in her bio lab and said ‘Go,’ ” Connelly recalls. She had to learn the material to stay ahead of the students. “Teaching is the best way to learn.” She went back the next year to earn an A in the course.

She’s been in front of a classroom pretty much ever since —while earning a master’s degree from the University at Buffalo and a doctorate from Miami University of Ohio.

Connelly was hired by RIT to teach a general biology class, which attracts large numbers of students—not necessarily science majors. Now, she typically has 320 students every year ranging from freshmen to seniors, from all colleges at RIT. Her responsibilities also include 13 labs associated with the general biology classes, plus coordination of the intro biology labs for the majors class and teaching Ecology of UV Radiation, a course linked to her research.

Connelly makes an effort to get to know all her students. She invites them to stop by her office with questions about class, to talk about life, or just to say “hi.” And most of them take her up on it.

“My job is 90 percent mom and 10 percent instructor,” Connelly says. “My class is less ‘Let’s cram biology down their throats,’ and more ‘Let’s help them grow up and become the person they can be,’ while incorporating biology into their lives.”

For her, the best part of being a teacher is seeing a student get excited about the subject she loves. Her passion for science has taken her all the way from Nome, Alaska, to Antarctica. For the latter, she traveled as part of a National Science Foundation research expedition from December 2004 to February 2005.

And that explains the penguins that populate her office.

Connelly maintains an active research lab in collaboration with Jeremy Cody and Lorraine Tan, faculty members in RIT’s Department of Chemistry, six biology and chemistry undergraduates and one chemistry graduate student. They are studying vitamin D uptake in freshwater invertebrates and the ability of those animals to use vitamin D as a sunscreen.

She’s also involved in research with her former master’s thesis advisor, Derek Taylor, at the University at Buffalo. Together they are studying the effects of UV radiation on freshwater systems.

Taylor was not surprised to learn of Connelly’s Provost Award. “Sandi is a wonderful collaborator—extremely well organized with superior interpersonal and communication skills. Sandi already has a wealth of experience in field and experimental biology. She has led and participated in several successful field expeditions in remote areas. It’s easy to imagine that Sandi’s extensive research experience and her enthusiasm for ongoing research projects would help to make her a better teacher.”

Connelly is about to extend a collaboration with Jeff Mills, a postdoctoral associate in chemistry at the University at Buffalo. Mills and Connelly will be married on May 28— just a week after RIT Commencement.

“It’s going to be a busy month,” says Connelly.