Meet Mathee

“I think my students are my lasting legacy—we owe our best to them, so that they can be the best they can be.”

—Kalai Mathee, Ph.D., receiving an honor at the 2011 Florida International University Faculty Convocation

Prior to becoming a professor, my teaching was limited to training students on an individual basis in a research laboratory, organizing and delivering lectures on a wide variety of topics—both within and outside of my research field. Clearly, the challenge that lied ahead of me was to organize a formal lecture course in its entirety. The bigger challenge was getting students interested in the subject matter, motivating them to do more than required, and leaving a lasting impression. Perhaps, I was blessed with a string of absolutely wonderful teachers and mentors who accomplished those goals effortlessly. The two professors who had an immense influence on my teaching and training styles are Chong-Lek Koh (M.Sc.) and Martha M. Howe (Ph.D.).

One thing they both had in common was their organization, meticulousness, and passion about the subjects they taught. Chong-Lek introduced me to the wonderful world of microbial genetics and molecular biology. The most invaluable wisdom imparted to me by Martha was professionalism and the solid belief that every student can succeed. As her mentee, I felt contempt—alongside my colleagues—for her training style. She was an iron lady with a smile, so to speak: too demanding, always suggesting one last experiment. It wasn’t long before we realized what she had done for us. We were universally competitive: we could stand head-to-head with graduates of far more prestigious universities, with far more experience, more background and resilience…and win.

In fact, at FIU, I usually spend my first lecture getting to know the students and sharing ambition with them. I tell them that when I am finished with them, they should be as well prepared as any student from any Ivy League institution. I also insist that the quality and volume of my lecture materials will not be mitigated for any reason. I realized that this philosophy comes with a price tag: some students will love you, and others, will hate you. This is a price I am willing to pay, since those who hate me will come around, and be happy that our paths had crossed.

I consider every student mentored by me a part of my legacy. Thus, I apply the same principles in training to students working for my laboratory. They will become confident and comfortable with the subject matter, and be able to speak openly. All students interested in working with my laboratory receive a set of guidelines as to what is expected of them. This document includes many things that I took for granted as a graduate student. It has evolved over time, and is modified after every good and bad experience with a student. Often, this document serves as a deterrent to students who just want to get by, and attracts students who are willing to exert an effort into these crucial formative experiences as budding scientists.