He didn’t know if he could teach. Look at him now
Published on Thursday, May 10, 2018
By: Gary Pettus
Years ago, Dr. Amol Janorkar was a graduate student in chemical engineering trying to sniff out the secret of a mysterious formula: how to teach.
“I realized that I needed to learn how to be a teacher,” said, Janorkar, “so I asked my mentors if there was any way I could find out if I would be any good at it at all.”
What his mentors at Clemson University did next may go a long way toward explaining what happened some 15 years later: During Monday’s Nelson Order luncheon, Janorkar was named the recipient of the 2018 Regions TEACH Prize.
The Regions TEACH (Toward Educational Advancement in Care and Health) Prize lifts up the winner with a $10,000 award and the knowledge that students had a say in selecting the person deemed the year’s most outstanding educator at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
“That means the world to me,” said Janorkar, professor of biomedical materials science. “That’s essentially what I’m here for.”
For confirmation, there are the words of Bhuvaneswari Gurumurthy, a graduate assistant earning her Ph.D. under Janorkar’s mentorship.
“He cares about his students and will answer any questions we have, even a simple one,” she said. “We can go to him without hesitation. He always puts us first and I believe that’s why he deserves the award.
“He gives us freedom to explore different research ideas. Before asking him what to do when we encounter a problem, he encourages us to think through all the possible solutions. It’s a special quality he has.”
His knack for getting students to come up with their own solutions also struck Dr. Kendra Clark soon after she chose Janorkar as her mentor. A fourth-year dental student with a Ph.D., Clark said Janorkar also has the “ability to convey a vast amount of complicated information in an easy-to-understand format.
“He encourages and inspires.”
Janorkar was a student himself when he realized there was a glaring gap in his own education. “I didn’t know if I could teach,” he said. “I did not want to go into a teaching research job without knowing how to do it. That would be a disservice to the students.”
It was while growing up in Nasik, India, that he learned how much teachers meant to those they taught. His father, now retired, was in government service, while his mother stayed home to raise Janorkar and his sister. On his mother’s side of the family, though, teaching was the lure: His grandfather, some uncles and cousins are, or were, professional educators.
“I saw students come to my relatives and say how much they had helped them,” Janorkar said.
Still, for the most part, Janorkar had not learned how to teach. He was busy being a student in India, at the University of Mumbai, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, then, starting in 2000, in the United States.
While pursuing his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Clemson University, he realized no formal program existed to teach graduate students how to be teachers.
“So I asked my mentors, Dr. Douglas Hirt and Dr. David Bruce, to help me in this,” Janorkar said. “They did something that had never been done before at Clemson; they let me teach a class, in chemical engineering. They watched me for a semester, telling me what I did right or wrong.
“The general consensus was I could do it.”
It would be at least a couple more years before Janorkar would find out how well he could do it in Mississippi. He completed a two-year fellowship at Harvard Medical School in the Center for Engineering in Medicine before joining the UMMC faculty in 2007, finally settling in Madison with the two people who “really drive me to do my best,” he said: his wife, Dr. Deepti Janorkar, a UMMC assistant professor of dentistry, and their school-age daughter, Sanika.
“My personal growth since I came here, it’s like night and day,” said Janorkar, crediting his own mentors at UMMC and the valuable clinician’s perspective he has gained. “There are a lot of clinicians here,” he said, “but the easiest one to talk to is my wife.”
Here, his primary appointment is in the School of Dentistry. For the TEACH Prize, he was nominated by students from the School of Graduate Studies in the Health Sciences, where he also teaches and performs research. In 2014, he received the Silver Medallion Award from the UMMC Excellence in Research program.
During the ceremony held Monday in the Student Union, he accepted one of this institution’s top awards for educators. Janorkar became one of 20 inductees into the Norman C. Nelson Order of Teaching Excellence, created in 2004 by the Office of Academic Affairs to toast the Medical Center’s best teachers – as nominated by the students from each Medical Center school.
Janorkar was one of six finalists chosen from the Nelson Order inductees by fellow faculty members and recommended by their deans. Their educational portfolios were scrutinized by a panel of administrators, faculty and students before one was selected for the TEACH Prize, sponsored since 2013 by Regions Bank.
But, when Janorkar was called to the front of the room, his first thought was: “‘There are better people than me in the finalists’ pool. There is so much for me to learn.’
“Getting the TEACH Prize was not something I expected,” he said. “But I am definitely grateful to my students, who nominated me, and to the graduate school and the dental school, who supported me.”
Janorkar accepted a ceremonial check the size of a beach towel from Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, and Alon Bee, city president-metro Jackson Regions Bank.
“Regions has had a long relationship with the Medical Center which we value highly,” Bee said later. “We believe it’s especially important to recognize the educators who make such a difference to so many people in ways they may never know.”
The Teaching Excellence tribute “makes tangible the Medical Center’s claim that education is our first mission,” said Dr. Rob Rockhold, professor of pharmacology & toxicology, and deputy chief academic officer, who led the program.
Part of Janorkar’s own philosophy for heeding that mission is this, he said: “To recognize that each student is different from me. I don’t have to make them be like me. When they bring up a research idea, that is their inner passion, and I usually don’t tell them to back away from it.
“I may say, ‘OK, but let’s make it better.’”
Asked how he hit upon that formula, he said, “That is a tough one. Maybe it was observing all the teachers in my life, including my family, my colleagues and all my mentors. They are much better at this than I am.”