portraits of four new faculty members

Meet Our New Faculty

The challenges of 2020-2021 have revealed that St. Lawrence’s new faculty are as creative as the times we live in


Olivia White '17

The 2020-2021 academic year was unlike any in St. Lawrence history. We begin our introductions to some of the new, tenure-track faculty who met those challenges head-on by bringing their own expertise and innovative twists into learning and problem solving in the 21st century.

Physics’ Massooma Pirbhai Puts Her Students’ Futures First

In all the courses that we teach, we should try to learn a little more about our students, starting from the intro classes. Knowing my students and trying to get them where they want to be is important for me.

Assistant Professor of Physics Massooma Pirbhai’s research concerns the interactions between nanomaterials, specifically carbon nanotubes, and cellular structures. That may seem complex, but she’s trained in the art of breaking it down and making it approachable to nonphysicists.

“Those really, really small particles, we usually call them nanoparticles, are used for research and medical purposes,” she explains. “Think about attaching them to deliver drugs or genes. We want to make sure we understand their short- and long-term effects. We don’t want to be attaching something without knowing how it’s going to react to your cells, and instead of curing a disease, we’re creating a disease.”
Pirbhai believes the ability to clearly explain one’s research, no matter how complicated, to others is essential to a holistic physics education. It’s a big part of what drew her to the liberal arts learning model at St. Lawrence. As an instructor and a mentor, she seeks to empower her students with the oral and written communication skills they’ll need to forge ahead and excel in their careers.

“At the end of their four years here, [students] should be closer to getting their dream job, and not only getting [it], but also having the skills needed to survive [it],” she says: “In all the courses that we teach, we should try to learn a little more about our students, starting from the intro classes. Knowing my students and trying to get them where they want to be is important for me.”

Public Health’s Ernesto Moralez Illuminates His Vision for the Growing Program

I’m spending my time thinking about making sure every student has the rigor to go to the next level. How do I stay within the [liberal arts] model? How do I also make sure every student has a comprehensive exposure to the foundations of public health?

Over the past year, the term “public health” has become almost synonymous with COVID-19. Although his title might tempt questions about the pandemic, Assistant Professor of Public Health Ernesto Moralez is a specialist in chronic, not infectious, disease. He’s passionate about developing health education and chronic disease prevention strategies to address health disparities with holistic, empowered community care.

“My early career research was focused on clinical research—hospital settings, family practice, and clinical settings. I became interested in how to increase medical providers’ skill sets, so they don’t ignore depression and anxiety and their patients actually feel comfortable talking about depression and anxiety,” he says.

According to Moralez, psychiatric care is a luxury for marginalized and rural communities. Not only can it be expensive, but it also requires taking time off or arranging child care in order to attend appointments. For most people, that means the short amount of time they get with their primary care physician during their yearly physical is the only substantive medical care they receive all year.

Moralez advocates for more holistic care, equipping providers with the confidence and knowledge to address underlying issues, and empowering community health workers. These issues shape the questions he asks in his research and guide the systemic change he advocates for.

Ultimately, he wants those who graduate from this program to grasp both the big picture and the individual nuances of public health challenges and approach problems with every tool in their kit.

Sociology’s Alanna Gillis Harnesses Student Perspectives to Promote Inclusivity

One of the things that I try to understand is, from a student’s perspective, how are they navigating through college? What sort of barriers are they facing? If we can identify these barriers…then we can work to address them and make higher education live up to the ideal that we all have for it.

When it comes to teaching, Assistant Professor of Sociology Alanna Gillis strives to see through her students’ eyes. She’s passionate about identifying inequalities in higher education to design more inclusive curricula.

“Most Americans view higher education as a pathway for opportunity, but a lot of social science research shows that students face different barriers to equal access,” she says. “One of the things that I try to understand is, from a student’s perspective, how are they navigating through college? What sort of barriers are they facing? If we can identify these barriers…then we can work to address them and make higher education live up to the ideal that we all have for it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic magnified these barriers when it forced an abrupt transition to remote learning for college students across the country. Gillis and a former colleague were curious about student perceptions of the switch.

“Almost everyone in the higher education community went through the same problem in the spring where courses that had been face-to-face suddenly had to be online with almost no notice and no training,” Gillis says. “I collected research on how the transition went in my class and worked with a colleague to see how it went in her class. Students compared how the transition went in their other courses so we could analyze from the students’ perspective what was effective for their learning, what was accessible, and what was enjoyable, but also what barriers they faced.”

Their findings, published in Teaching Sociology, reveal practical insights professors can use to enhance the remote learning experience and make it as rewarding as possible for their students. She and her colleague also found that remote teaching is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and just because something works well for one professor, doesn’t necessarily mean it will be effective for another.

Economics’ Thea How Choon Connects Across Time Zones

I use data sometimes, but I’m more interested in economic theory and how to model people’s behavior and people’s choices.

This year, Assistant Professor of Economics Thea How Choon needed to set a lot of reminders on her phone. Like many around the world, the pandemic upended her daily routine. She is currently living and working across a nine-hour time zone difference—which means several of her classes begin as early as 12:30 a.m. her time.

“I have alarms for everything because the timing is so weird,” she says. “I have to know when to eat dinner and all that.”
How Choon returned to her home country of Mauritius at the beginning of the pandemic. That’s where she defended her thesis before earning her Ph.D. from Boston University in the spring, where she spent her summer planning for her first semester at St. Lawrence, and where she’s currently teaching from.

Her decision to teach synchronously despite its effect on her schedule is both a personal preference and an effort to accommodate students so they get the most out of every class.

“I really want to have that component of guiding them through each lesson so that they feel safe and supported in that way,” says How Choon. “I’m not someone who can learn very well asynchronously. I actually really like it when there’s someone walking me through everything. That’s the way that I learn. If you’re interacting with someone, it’s so much easier to remember everything and to understand things because your mind is more engaged. You feel like you actually can connect with the material.”