Core Conversations: Orit Karni-Schmidt

Thursday, June 27, 2024
Orit Karni-Schmidt GSAS’07

Professor Karni-Schmidt at Baker Field

In this series, we speak with professors who lead different sections of the Core Curriculum to learn what they love about engaging with College students. This month we chat about Frontiers of Science with Orit Karni-Schmidt GSAS’07, lecturer in the discipline of biological sciences. Karni-Schmidt’s work focuses on cancer research; she has been teaching in the Core for nine years.

What is the best part about teaching the Core Curriculum?

I really love teaching first-years. They’re at the beginning of the journey, I can welcome them to Columbia, I can watch them grow and develop — many of them stay in touch throughout their whole time at Columbia. And I like how diverse the student body is in Frontiers of Science; I love to inspire the students who didn’t think that it would be possible for them to be scientists, watching them discover the beauty and the importance of science and realize that they’re capable.

I also love working with the [Frontiers of Science] team. We have such an amazing, brilliant group of colleagues from different backgrounds. It’s unique in science, to have scientists from different areas working together. And we all have a passion, not just for science, but also for teaching. We all bring something different to the curriculum and it’s always amazing to be part of our meetings. It’s inspiring and constructive, and I know that when we come to a consensus, that it is going to be the best decision ever.

How do you innovate and/or bring your own spin to Frontiers of Science?

I’ve been teaching the course for many years, so that allows me to know what works, and what doesn’t. I like to emphasize the frontiers part of Frontiers of Science. Things are always changing, so it is exciting and allows us to be creative. For example, we teach about gravitational waves and black holes but, until recently, we were not able to detect gravitational waves nor see black holes. Now, with LIGO [The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory] we are able to detect gravitational waves and, using the Event Horizon Telescopes, we have obtained images of two black holes, so that’s something where we are right at the frontier.

I’m also in charge of our course’s science communications series, which includes a science spotlight, a lecturer spotlight and sometimes a student spotlight. We started the science spotlight series in 2016 as a platform for our instructors to talk about their research so students can see what we’re doing. But then I started adding guest speakers; during the pandemic it was all on Zoom, so I could have colleagues from all over the world. Every semester, I try to invite at least one or two professors who are not part of Frontiers of Science, to get different perspectives. It’s really fun, and students love it too! Also, I’m in charge of the Frontiers of Science social media [@FroSci], where I post about science events on campus or scientific discoveries.

What are you teaching that feels especially relevant for this year?

One of the co-founders of Frontiers of Science is Professor David Helfand. He wrote a book a few years ago, A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind. And this is what we base Frontiers on; we want to teach the students scientific habits of mind, a set of tools that we want them to take for life. We live in a world that’s dominated by science and technology and yet, I think it’s fair to say, the average person doesn’t fully understand much of it. What we’re trying to do is equip the students with scientific habits of mind that will allow them to assess information, reach their own conclusions and form their own insights. I believe that this is essential in our world, where there is misinformation and disinformation everywhere; critical thinking skills are crucial.

What has been your favorite Frontiers teaching moment?

I have so many different moments of joy, I’m truly inspired by my students — I keep telling them that, yeah, I’m their professor, but I learn so much from them, too. It’s really rewarding when students have their “a-ha” moments in class. They feel good about it and excited, which makes me happy. It happens with many students each semester either in class or at office hours. I had one student this past fall who represented the youth at COP28 [the United Nations Climate Change Conference]; she sent me a video of the session she participated in and she actually mentioned Frontiers of Science and how important it is. She didn’t tell me in advance but when I listened to the section, she mentioned my name, so I was in tears; I’m a super proud professor.

Another great moment was last semester. The coach of the football team approached me and said that he heard good things about me from his students, and asked if I would be willing to address the team. But when I went to the field, his assistant told me that it was actually a student nomination; they put my name on the board, and it was great. It really warms my heart when I hear how much students appreciate science and my class. I don’t see Frontiers of Science as a job — for me, this is a calling. I really love it, and I hope my students and my colleagues feel that.

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