First-year faculty: The art of multitasking

New professors quickly learn to juggle teaching, research, students

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A. Sue Weisler

Michael Schrlau joined the Kate Gleason College of Engineering this fall and has been working to balance classroom activities, department tasks and research activities. He presented elements of his previous research “At the Interface of Nanotechnology and Biology” at a recent engineering seminar for engineering students.

8 a.m. Tuesday: Heat Transfer class preparation

Understanding the complexities of heat transfer when building nuclear reactors may mean the difference between generating electricity and recovering from a meltdown.

Thirty-one mechanical engineering undergraduates are learning to manage the former to prevent the latter, in Michael Schrlau’s capable hands. While he is new to the classroom setting, he is not new to the subject matter.

When Schrlau mentioned experience working at the Pennsylvania Power and Light Corp., a nuclear power plant, the questions flew—how much radiation were you exposed to? How much pressure was in the reactor? It was a discussion that was slightly off topic, but it captured the attention of the students.

“Lessons either go really well, or rough with things you didn’t anticipate,” he says. Taking time prior to the class to review materials is like taking the class again. But it is this preparation that makes it easier to temporarily veer away from mass flow rates and mean velocity to talk about a real-world situation that directly relates to the material.

Teaching four days a week at RIT is mixed with office hours, department meetings and preparation setting up a lab to continue research work. Robert Stevens, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, teaches a separate section of Heat Transfer and has become an informal mentor for Schrlau, providing notes as well as insights into the class. It is a common hand-off between faculty.

“Even though I have notes from somebody else, they reflect somebody else’s understanding of the material and the way they convey it to students. You still have to develop your own understanding and presentation style,” he says. “Because it’s rough in the beginning, you quickly learn and constantly adjust from your mistakes.”

Dealing with rough starts, or finding ways to minimize them, is a rite of passage for new faculty. Academic Affairs launched a faculty mentoring initiative to provide tools to new faculty to manage classroom interactions, office hours and committee and research responsibilities. Students also share their expectations of new faculty members.

“The one thing that is really good about the students is that they are not just sitting there, nodding regardless of understanding the material, agreeing with it, disagreeing with it. They are very expressive. So I am always looking for input from them,” says Schrlau.

1:35 p.m. Tuesday: Engineering Seminar

Faculty members bring new information to the classroom through their research and scholarship. Schrlau earned his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. When he arrived at Drexel University, he was a research assistant professor in the W.M. Keck Institute for Attofluidic Nanotube-based Probes. He worked on developing carbon nanotube devices to study bio-molecular processes across cell membranes. Engineering students were able to get a closer look at his work during his recent seminar, “At the Interface of Nanotechnology and Biology.”

“I know just enough cell biology to be dangerous,” he says. He developed an interest in the subject during graduate school and has found a niche in the growing biomedical technology field. “This way, I am able to design practical devices and show what they can do.”

The students watched video clips of a nanoprobe, a hundred times smaller than the width of a human hair, as it entered the nucleus of a living cell. The technology is a non-invasive way to monitor cell composition and function, Schrlau explained. At this nanoscopic level, there is an even greater possibility of studying, screening for and possibly treating disease.

“I can talk about this for hours,” he says. “I get excited about the topic and the research possibilities.” Several students caught up with him after the presentation to talk more about the research and how they could get involved.

2:25 p.m. Friday: Office hours

In his office, students settle in, continuing conversations about the previous lecture and other topics. “My goal is to give students the skills they need to be successful as engineers and go down whatever path they take in the future,” he says.

Being at RIT less than five months, part of his orientation is looking for like-minded peers who he may be able to collaborate with on research. “I am working with several colleagues outside RIT and I’m just starting conversations with RIT faculty from engineering and different colleges,” he adds.

6:30 p.m. Friday: Heading home

Connecting with faculty across campus; preparing for the next day’s classes, exams and student presentations; setting up his research program; and submitting grant proposals are priorities for Schrlau. But so is his family. He and his wife, Amy, live in Pittsford with their 3-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and dog, Lily. When asked how he’s managing the work-life balance, “I’ll let you know when I do,” he answers laughing.

Faculty Mentoring Network @RIT Initiative

Building a mentoring network is an efficient way for new faculty to integrate into the teaching profession and daily activities at RIT. It is also a means for current faculty to continue scholarship and advance their careers.

A new faculty mentoring system was launched this fall by the provost and the Division of Academic Affairs. Resources are available to help faculty understand the role that peers in the department and across the university could play in helping to manage the classroom, navigate the tenure process, find viable research partners and collaborations and set realistic guidelines for achieving success in the expanding arena of scholarship and corporate relationships.

“The Faculty Mentoring Network @RIT provides additional tools, resources and support to enhance and augment mentoring plans within the colleges,” says Lynn Wild, associate provost. “While many mentoring programs are built upon a protégé/mentor relationship, the Faculty Mentoring program at RIT encourages tenure track faculty to develop a constellation of mentors—within and external to RIT—who provide unique perspectives, knowledge and skills to support career development.”

The Faculty Mentoring Network @RIT website is a centralized repository with information and resources including customizable guides, links, grants and activities/events. “We hope that as the mentoring culture becomes more pervasive within RIT, protégés, mentors, departments and the college will become stronger and more aligned.”

Emphasis has been placed on increasing the number of AALANA (African American, Latin American, Native American) and female faculty on campus. Efforts in this area will be overseen by two faculty associates to the provost, Margaret Bailey, professor of mechanical engineering in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, and Chance Glenn, professor of telecommunications engineering technology in the College of Applied Science and Technology. Glenn is also associate dean of graduate studies.

More information about the Faculty Mentoring program can be found at