MIT FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Maxine Jonas, PhD, a Biological Engineering Instructor
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MIT FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Maxine Jonas, PhD, a Biological Engineering Instructor


Usually, when we think of professors, we
think of people who are primarily researchers but also teach. Within the
MIT Department of Biological Engineering, there are actually people who are
primarily teachers but also do research. This is Maxine Jonas, a person who is
an instructor in the department and is known throughout the entire MIT
biological engineering community. I’m Maxine Jonas, and I’m one of the instructors in
the department of biological engineering at MIT, so I mostly teach lab intensive
courses to our undergraduate students. For instance, this coming semester, I’m
gonna teach a class called bio instrumentation and measurements. So we
have a bunch of lectures on optics and microscopy, and the students build the
microscopes from scratch in the lab in teams, and then they look at
biological samples. They grow cells; they quantify different variables within the
cells; they do a lot of image processing; and then they also in a second part, do a
lot of more electronics parallels and signals and system processing to
understand how you can actually model a biological response just as you would
some other kind of engineering system like an electronic system and understand
better how biological engineering parallels other engineering approaches
this way. For how long have you known that you were we passionate about
science and teaching and kind of what led you down that path? Hmm, I must say my
interest in science certainly started way earlier than that. I think importantly I
I’ve always liked math and physics and the fact that you could have a
formalism and use logic to kind of go after problems and solve them. So this
was satisfying to me that you could, you know, write up the solution. There was a
theoretical frame that you could think through, but then what I realized
actually as I grew older and probably during my
undergrad years is that science in general is not a fixed field: there’s
actually a lot of controversy, a lot of discovery nowadays, but of course
throughout the past centuries also. So it’s actually a very dynamic discipline
in general, a mix of disciplines, and so this really was piquing my curiosity of
like oh wow science is actually evolving and people
continue to contribute to science. We don’t know everything about
how the world works, how our bodies work, etc. As for teaching, it’s funny, my
mom’s always told me that I was an innate teacher, and I’ve
always wanted to teach everything to my little sister, which I believe you
know was indeed a part of our relationship but as a child I thought a
teacher had a boring job of like repeating the same thing
year after year to the next generation of students, and it’s only as I grew
older that I saw that there’s a lot more creativity of course to teaching, and you
can make it your own sauce and there’s a different relationship with every person. So it’s not until I got a job after my PhD and was in charge of explaining our
robotic. So it was a biotech job, and we were setting a big robotic system for
drug discovery in general to Big Pharma’s or big biotechs surrounding the
Boston area. And part of my job was to teach the customers: how to use this
machine, how to troubleshoot it. And this is what really made me realize that I
liked kind of explaining concepts from the ground up and getting people to you
know dive into a topic and feel like feel satisfied with mastering it. And so
this highlighted to me that I enjoyed creating materials and adapting them
to the people I was teaching too, and so I realized that I enjoyed teaching at that
point. Out of the so many things you do Maxine what is your favorite aspect of
your job? Currently, the fact that I work so close with students and see them for
hours at a time in the lab, sometimes struggling, sometimes achieving successes
in the lab, is super gratifying because I feel that I get to know the students
much better than someone who will just speak at them in a lecture hall. And so
these in-person interactions with the students I must say also with my
colleagues who are awesome and very welcoming and supportive is very
gratifying because I… Yeah, just having a relationship with the students and
seeing how they grow during their time at MIT is just fun. That’s what I enjoy
most. Grad students in MIT BE, in addition to research, do teaching assistantships. How did you become a better teacher during grad school? I learned so much
about teaching during my PhD. I think I learned a lot about myself and about
perseverance and tenacity and you know not giving up going after a problem. So
it was good – it was good to challenge myself and to learn what I enjoyed doing, what I didn’t like so much — you know — lab versus computer work… Different
kind of team dynamics or power dynamics with people, so I think I learned about
myself. I did TA, so as a teaching assistant, helped for
one class during my PhD years which which I enjoyed which was again a lot of
interactions very helpful interactions for the
students. It’s great to be the person they turn to with trust, but it’s very
different from teaching and having to develop a curriculum, understand whether
learning goals should be for the students, and create material, and make it
coherent and interesting because as a TA you mostly reuse the work of people who
have already decided of what they wanted to teach what should they wanted to put
in the exam etc. whereas as an instructor or a full-time teacher, you make all those
decisions, and so there’s a lot more you that can transpire and reach the
students. Outside of work what do you like to do? Do you have any hobbies that
you really love? Hmm, I really enjoy the outdoors. I think that’s what gives me
pleasure. So in the winter, especially in the
Boston area, I love skiing and enjoying the snow in general. Sailing… Water in
general is a big pleasure of mine, so I love swimming, sailing, which we also do
regularly around Boston, and exercising in general. So it’s just enjoying nature
either walking and hiking around. Or yeah, just making sure I get out and enjoy
the Sun. What have been some of your most meaningful memories and interactions
during your time here at MIT? Hmm, so I came here at MIT as a PhD student after
undergraduate studies in France. I must say what’s always has been striking
to me was how collegial the department is. So biological engineering
really feels like a big community. People are very supportive of each other,
engage with one another. We kind of feel it’s both like students and
staff and professors. Everybody feels that they belong. and this was already
meaningful to me when I was a student: that our voice was taken into account. So
the department was very young at that time, and was very responsive to our
input, and I hope that’s something that continues because that’s something that
touched me, and that I remember. Was very valuable to me — just being
listened to even though if I was a young one in training in the department was
there for us first students, so that I’ve carried with me and I hope the
department keeps nurturing this sense of community and supportive yet bold kind
of attitude. If you could give any piece of advice to
your past self, what would that piece of advice be? I hope one that I have
followed but to be a good person — to treat people with respect. Or like then
and always because I realized since which I think I was not aware when I was
younger — that people you meet when you’re 20, you might meet again when you’re 30
or 40, and the impression you made on them
will carry through, and so if you’re a good person to them, you know
when you’re very young, they’ll remember you are someone who cares
about them who listens to them, and it’s something that might help you forever in
life: to just treat others very… the best you can. Do you have any advice for
any incoming or current students? Well maybe something they’ve heard before, but
at MIT, it’s easy to feel like everybody around you is so smart and you’re like
just an average — maybe not mediocre — but you know not so special person, and in
the end most people feel that way, and so most people are actually very special to
others and the fact that we, you know, made it to MIT and are surrounded by all
these great minds is already an amazing accomplishment. And there’s no need to
constantly judge yourself against others. Everyone has a value and something to
contribute and of course some people can be super brilliant in one aspect of
their lives but not as talented in another one. So just trying to keep your
confidence and your sense of self worth is totally worth…
is worth it because MIT is a very humbling place otherwise if you’re
worried about comparing yourself to others. Is there anything you’d like to
say to the students who’ve had you as a teacher over the years?
Oh wow, that I don’t know… That’s… At the end of each semester, I’m like, oh, I love
the students so much. I’m going to miss them so much,
and then the next semester I love the students so much again and find them
fantastic. It’s an awesome feeling that keeps reminding me and I hope, I
think, my colleagues how much we love our job is like we get so attached to our
students and how good they are. Thank you so much, Maxine. You’re welcome. If you
liked hearing Maxine talk, or you liked this video in general, please leave a
thumbs up or like below. It really helps my channel grow (hey, that rhymes). And if you want to see
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