Profiles in Teaching
Friday, October 14, 2016

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Katy Martin Rainey, Agronomy

"I derive a lot of the joy I have of teaching from the students who care about the topic. It's great to know that students are absorbing what I'm telling them; my passion for genetics pushes me to want to share information about it and inspire other students." - Katy Martin Rainey

Profiles in Teaching focuses each month on an individual whose work reflects Purdue Agriculture's commitment to learning.

About the Professor

Katy Martin Rainey is a soybean geneticist who researches and teaches plant genetics and advises about 15 students as an assistant professor in Purdue's Department of Agronomy.

Rainey advises students to trust their intuition when it comes to choosing a career path. She's passionate about this message, and for good reason.

"I like to encourage students to trust their guts," Rainey said. "I did it, and it's worked out well for me."

In fact, it was not until Rainey's senior year as an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia that she settled on plant genetics—specifically plant breeding—as a career.

"What I like about genetics is that there's a steep learning curve to understand it, but once you get there, genetics can make you realize how related everything is," she said. "Living things have the same mechanisms of transporting information, so the more you learn, the more you realize the similarities among all living things. That's sort of amazing."

Teaching Philosophy

Rainey teaches both an introductory undergraduate course, Genetics (Agronomy 32000), and a graduate-level course, Advanced Plant Breeding (Agronomy 60500). She varies her teaching according to students' levels of understanding.

"When I'm teaching an introductory class, I try to make the topics and concepts relatable, whereas in teaching the advanced graduate-level class where students are at the very edge of the current knowledge, the goal is to teach them how to think critically about genetics and plant breeding," she said.

Rainey said to motivate her undergraduate students, she often uses the most interesting real-world examples she can find to explain genetic concepts. Sometimes, she borrows from human medicine, showing how a genetic disease is inherited through the generations of a family. Other times, she delves into paleoanthropology, following researchers who study Neanderthal DNA to understand archaic humans.

"One of my favorite examples is probably to show the way sex chromosomes work," Rainey said. "Some women can see millions more colors than the average human by having different types of cells in their eyes—which is amazing. I'll ask the class if they have colorblindness in their families because it's usually women descended from colorblind men who have this rare mutation."

Summer Teaching

Following a call a few years ago for departments to offer more classes during the summer, Rainey took up teaching summer classes and says it is a worthwhile effort for both faculty and students.

"Summer school can provide flexibility later on in students' college careers, allow them to take other classes, study abroad or complete internships during the school year," she said.

For students struggling to get a passing grade in a genetics class by the drop date, taking the class in summer might be the best option to maintain their GPA.

"In the summer, the curriculum is really concentrated-my students have to learn everything in seven or so weeks," she said. "But there is the benefit of that class maybe being the only class they take over the summer, and they get super-immersed."

Rainey has gotten feedback from her summer students that the immersion is beneficial; the structure of the class is very routine with quizzes and homework due on expected dates. She said some students work well on more regular schedules.

"I do think there should be support for summer teaching," Rainey said. "I suggest faculty thinking about it to definitely do it. You have to restructure your courses and get the hang of the compressed time frame, but I can advise any faculty interested."

By Emma Hopkins

Purdue Agriculture Teaching Profiles are written by students majoring in Agricultural Communication.

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