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A researcher finds joy in teaching

Teaching is a two-way street for ASU's top teaching assistant.
May 5, 2016

ASU economics doctoral student wins top teaching-assistant award

Teaching is a two-way street for Allan Hernandez.

“I don’t like to think that when you’re a professor there is a thick window between you and the students. I learn from the students as much as they are learning from me,” said Hernandez, who won the award as the top teaching assistant from the Graduate and Professional Student Association at Arizona State University.

“With technology, they are like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.

Hernandez is a doctoral student in economics in the W. P. Carey School of Business and taught introductory microeconomics to about 500 undergraduates this semester.

Many graduate students must teach introductory courses to undergraduates, but not everyone embraces it.

“I don’t see teaching as a burden. I think it is a rewarding experience,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez, who earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Costa Rica, previously taught economics and math in his native country, where classes typically are much smaller.

“Here you have an auditorium and you have to use a microphone,” he said. “You have to get their attention and make eye contact. You need to make sure you’re not only connecting with the guys in the center.

“And you have to encourage them to ask questions. These classes are so large that they’re afraid if they ask a question they’ll look stupid.

“But because it’s an introductory class, we had biology majors, communication majors — and everybody brought their own approach and could learn from that."

Hernandez was the teaching assistant for Nancy Roberts, professor emeritus, who taught the course.

“He’s a very good researcher, and a lot of people are just worried about research. He’s also interested in teaching,” Roberts said.

“He’s very personable and the students like him, but he doesn’t baby them.”

For his dissertation, Hernandez researched centralized college-admissions systems. Unlike in the United States, many countries, including China and Japan, require high school students to rank their preferred universities and their preferred majors. The students are then assigned a university and a major, which may not be their top choice. Hernandez set up an algorithm that universities can use to more closely match students’ choices.

“The idea is to see what the actual mechanism is doing and what do students prefer, and if there is a big misalignment, that is bad. It’s bad for the university because you’re putting a lot of money into a student who may not be happy,” Hernande said.

This summer, after doing research at the University of Warwick in England, he will return to ASU to teach the math boot camp for doctoral students.

"I find it very interesting to teach the complicated stuff for people who already have a bachelor's or a master's in math and then teach a class of basic principles to freshmen and sophomores."

Hernandez, who hopes to get a position as a research and teaching professor after he earns his doctorate, said he’s honored to win the award and is happy that the Graduate and Professional Student Association recognizes assistants.

“It puts teaching up where it belongs.”

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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5 fascinating facts about Mom

May 5, 2016

Research at ASU has revealed new insights about the important role of being a mother

1. Mothers also need mothering

Motherhood brings great joys but also great demands, which can take a toll on a mother’s psychological well-being. ASU research reveals two crucial factors that promote a healthy psychological state in mothers: unconditional acceptance by friends and authenticity in relationships.  

2. Mothers carry the cells of their fetuses even after giving birth

Research from the Biodesign Institute shows that during pregnancy, cells from the fetus often migrate through the placenta. The cells then take up residence in many areas of the mother’s body, where their influence may benefit or undermine maternal health. This means mom is a chimera, and the more children she has, the more “alien” cells she has in her body.

3. Pregnant mothers grow a disposable super organ

The placenta is a remarkable organ unique to pregnant mothers that protects and nurtures an unborn baby and is expelled after birth. It holds many mysteries that scientists don’t understand, but ASU Biodesign researcher Cheryl Nickerson is helping to change that. Her team has developed a pioneering 3-D cell culture model to mimic and study the natural behavior of placental cells. This type of model could lead to better research on placentas and help protect both mothers and babies.

4. Many mothers don't talk about childbirth — but they should

Giving birth is a hugely significant event in many women’s lives, but it’s one that our society as a whole doesn’t often talk about. Because of this, many women are unprepared for the messy realities and lasting effects of giving birth. ASU associate professor and artist Forrest Solis is working to combat this stigma with an art and oral history project titled “Creative Push,” which aims to record and disseminate women’s birth stories without judgment.

5. Mothers make different breast milk for daughters and sons

The contents of breast milk differ depending on the gender of the baby, and the distinction of “girl milk” vs. “boy milk” is likely determined in utero, according to research by ASU anthropologist Katie Hinde. This has important implications for understanding breast-milk production, improving commercial infant formula and for milk-sharing programs.

Kelsey Wharton

Science Writer , Knowledge Enterprise Development