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NewsMay 20, 2021

An interest in teaching science leads graduate to pursue PhD in Chemistry

Katie Walsh ’21, Lesley’s first graduate to pursue advanced study in chemistry, credits her mentor and research opportunities for trailblazing career path

Katie Walsh in graduation garb
Katie Walsh ’21 is Lesley’s first alum to go onto a graduate degree in chemistry.

Katie Walsh didn’t come to Lesley intending to major in Biology.

She planned to study digital filmmaking, but she couldn’t shake a deep-seated interest in science and she was intrigued by Lesley’s reputation as a school for educators.

“I shifted my gaze before freshman classes even started. And then it somehow spiraled into, ‘Actually, I’m going to teach science at the college level.’”

She is graduating this month with a degree in Biology and is one of Lesley’s inaugural Chemistry minors. She will start her doctorate in Chemistry at Tufts University in the fall of 2021 – Lesley’s first alum to go onto a graduate degree in chemistry.

“I’ve always been a teachy kind of person—I just never thought that I was going to teach. And then the summer between getting accepted and starting at Lesley, I thought, ‘Maybe I actually do want to teach,’” she recalled.

She thought briefly about teaching English, but was propelled toward her favorite subject in high school: science.

A mentoring relationship with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Grace Ferris helped further ignite Walsh’s interest.

“The first class that I had with Grace, I thought ‘Oh, I'm going to like her—this is going to be good,’” she recalled. “But it ended up shaping the path that I took.”

Walsh was inspired by Dr. Ferris’s “unabashed” excitement for teaching her subject matter.

“Our brains worked on the same wavelength. She’s very eager and a huge nerd, which has always been the best kind of teacher!” said Walsh.

In turn, Ferris was impressed with Walsh’s aptitude, persistence, and ability not only to master the challenging material but to help others understand it as well.

“She went out of her way to take advantage of learning online,” said Ferris. “She took advanced courses including Analytical Chemistry I & II and Inorganic Chemistry at other institutions to better prepare herself for graduate school and learn chemistry that isn’t offered at Lesley.”

Pursuing a subject that most students find extremely challenging made Walsh curious about the methods Ferris used, including helping students who had bad experiences with high school chemistry.

“She has this ability to meet those kids where they’re at in a way that’s really awesome.”

A mentor relationship leads to research

Walsh was still pursuing the idea of teaching high school science, but an internship discouraged her. She discussed other possibilities with Ferris including an idea she had for research within the Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division. That fall while Walsh worked as a teaching assistant for Ferris in her general chemistry course, they embarked on a research project together.

Their study focused on a teaching practice known as “collaborative exams” where students complete an exam on their own, then work together in groups to retake an identical exam. It turns a test, Walsh explained, into a chance to learn and grow.

“There’s research behind making kids less anxious about exams, and getting to capture that moment that you usually have walking out into the hallway after an exam where you say, ‘Oh, that's what that one was?’”

“It helps students confront what they didn’t understand,” Ferris said. “The exam becomes a learning opportunity. The mood changes. They’re laughing.”

Walsh wanted to delve further into the learning process behind the practice.

“I was interested in the way that folks are actually having these learning moments when we’re doing collaborative exams. What is it about the discussion that’s happening that makes it productive or unproductive? And how can you categorize that? So we did the research in the general chemistry classes. It’s really an experiment about science and learning.”

Walsh continued as Ferris’s teaching assistant as classes shifted to remote learning in the spring of 2020.

“It’s hard to teach this stuff remotely—it’s a whole new level of challenge,” said Walsh.

Katie Walsh wears a mask in Lesley's chemistry lab
Katie Walsh sports a mask in a high school chemistry lab where she was teaching in 2020.

That’s when she began to think about a doctorate.

“We’re just finishing up literally two years of working together straight, which has really solidified for me that chemistry is worth teaching. And it’s given me a lot of opportunities to realize what I’ve learned from Grace or what my students have taught me.”

Walsh also conducted research with Professor Ira Caspari at Tufts who will be her PhD advisor.

Walsh is wistful at the thought of leaving the professor and classmates she’s been studying with and teaching for so long. But she’s excited to explore ways to help students master the challenges of chemistry and to inspire students the way that Ferris inspired her.

“Nine times out of 10, as soon as you say ‘I'm teaching chemistry’ or ‘I am going to grad school for chemistry’ somebody going to say ‘I could never do that! I hated it! It was the worst year of my life,’” said Walsh. “But it’s fun to teach and to have people come to you with this idea that they can’t do this and then help them work through that ‘I am not capable’ mindset.”