Dr. Michelle Rafacz and the Art of Science

Finding a professor that truly inspires you is quite difficult, especially if it’s for an LAS course you have zero interest in. Each time you sign up for a class, you hope for a professor that won’t lull you to sleep with their lesson. Any student that has had the pleasure of being taught by Dr. Michelle Rafacz knows that they are the lucky ones. Every time you step into class, you are being fully immersed into the same energy, excitement, and knowledge that Dr. Rafacz is bringing that day.Dr. Rafacz finished her PhD in Biology at the University of Chicago in 2010, and joined the Science and Mathematics department at Columbia College Chicago in 2011. She is currently teaching Introduction Biology and Honors: Evolution of Sex, as well as volunteering at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

To get to know Dr. Rafacz a little more, I had a short interview with her, trying not to overwhelm her with the infinite questions that I have.

1. What made you decide to teach at Columbia College?

“I was finishing up my post-doctoral work at Lincoln Park Zoo when I decided to make a career change. Pure research is satisfying for a number of reasons, but it takes a very long time to get from designing your study, securing funding, collecting and analyzing your data, and writing and submitting your manuscript for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.  I guess I was seeking more instant gratification--seeing students learn material right away is so satisfying. Plus, I get to involve students in my research at the zoo!  Now, the reason Columbia College was so appealing to me as a place of learning, was because the majority of students are pursuing creative majors, and I've found that Columbia students have very open, curious minds. I've also come to see that the most creative thinkers tend to make the best scientists”.

2. Who or what inspired you to do research about sex and animal behavior?

“I pretty much always knew that I wanted to work with animals. From a very young age, I would sit for hours watching the birds or squirrels in my backyard wondering about what they were doing and why. I was absolutely thrilled when I realized that I could make a career out of watching animals. As I pursued my degrees, my interest began to focus more on conservation of endangered species, and the best way to help many of these species to help with their reproduction. That's how I came to study reproductive behavior and endocrinology in an effort to save endangered species, both in the wild and in zoos”.

3. What are your plans for the future, teaching or career-wise?

“I recently received tenure and was promoted to Associate Professor of Biology here at Columbia College, which is extremely satisfying.  I love teaching both introductory and Honors courses, and I intend on continuing to develop my skills as an educator in the coming years.  My plans also include involving more of my students in animal behavior research at Lincoln Park Zoo, where I'm an Adjunct Scientist in the Conservation & Science Department.  I also just returned from sabbatical completing research investigating the role facial symmetry and mate choice in the critically endangered black-footed ferret. Of course, as is normally the case with scientific research projects, my data raised plenty more questions I plan to investigate in the near future with my colleagues at the zoo”.

4. What are some things you are currently involved with (the zoo, or other organizations)?

“I'm currently participating as a committee member on a number of graduate student PhD dissertation committees, I'm mentoring new faculty members at Columbia College, and I'm the coordinator for the Environmental Studies minor, as well.  At the zoo, I also work as a volunteer for the Conservation Summer Camps for children. I'm also a mother of a 2.5 year old little girl, which also keeps me rather busy”.

5. What is it like to be a woman in your field of work?

“Being a woman in a STEM field certainly has its challenges. My scientific field is still dominated by men, and so in addition to unequal pay and other inequalities, there always has been and still is a sense of not being good enough by comparison. This sentiment was very strong for me, especially in graduate school. Hopefully, that will all start to change soon. I'm personally very lucky to be in my field and particularly in my position at Columbia College. My department, Science & Mathematics, is incredible --I've only ever felt respected by my colleagues. I hope to help all of my students, but especially my female students, to overcome any feelings of inequality in their careers or other personal endeavors”.

Each time I leave Dr. Rafacz’s class, I feel inspired to make a change in the world. The incredible passion and energy she has for biology and teaching makes her students want to learn. Any questions you have will be answered, and are encouraged. If you don’t believe me, check ratemyprofessors.com and you will see a beaming 5.0 and high recommendations from all for her students.