As a postdoc in the molecular biology field, I spend most of my time doing experiments in the lab; on some days, I barely step outside. Luckily, with the bonus of free food, I enjoy attending gatherings on campus, which often leads to knowing wonderful people in the community. During last year’s departmental Christmas party, I met Dr. Edgar Moctezuma, an instructor in the Department of Cell Biology & Molecular Genetics at the University of Maryland (UMD). He has been teaching Plant Biology classes for non-science majors at UMD since 2003. He is also the faculty advisor of the local chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Latinos and Native Americans in the Sciences (SACNAS). Recently, I interviewed Edgar about his teaching journey as an instructor.

Spark natural curiosity in students

Have you ever watched James Bond movie clips in class? If your answer is no, you haven’t been in Edgar’s Plant Biology classes. In a clip from Casino Royale, James Bond almost died from a high dose of Digitalis purpurea slipped into his martini. Edgar uses the clip to explain drug dosage and medicinal plants. He says, “Low dose of Digitalis purpurea can be used to treat heart disease. Dosage and delivery methods determine the function of chemicals in medicinal plants. In some cases, a small dose is medicinal, a medium dose is toxic, and a high dose through injection is used for chemotherapy.”

Edgar sees teaching as a 24/7 job; he is constantly looking for materials to enrich the lectures and engage with the students. Because his students are non-science majors, he designs the class to “cultivate students’ natural instincts about science and the world” rather than to just satisfy a college requirement. He incorporates current news (mostly from the science sections of the New York Times or the BBC News) in the lectures to discuss the science relevance to our lives. Often, students begin to recognize connections and send him interesting articles related to the class topics.

His classes are so popular that roughly one sixth to one eighth of the UMD students with non-science majors have taken them. Edgar illustrates biological concepts (from cell structures and ecology to biotechnology) with a focus on plants, because “everything goes back to plants” and plant science research provides lots of great examples. He uses props and videos to make the concepts memorable. For example, he uses balloons as chromosomes to demonstrate the process of mitosis.

At the end of the semester, students have an assignment to visit the botanical garden, and the visit often becomes a transformative experience. Because the organizations of Edgar’s class and the botanical garden are similar, students instantly find the connections and reflect what they have learned in the class. When the students visit the botanical garden with family members, they often become their tour guides. “The college tuition has finally paid off,” said one student’s parent after the visit. Another student found inspiration to use plants to create sensory experiences for special education. Edgar commented that the class could “spark natural curiosity and reach the scientists inside of the students.” Many students have observed that the scientific way of thinking they learned from the class has helped their own fields of study.


Pivotal experience backed career development

Growing up in Mexico, one of Edgar’s favorite things was wandering in his grandmother’s garden, where he was amazed by plants. He came to the United States when he was ten years old, and his interest in plants never faded. He went to the University of California at Irvine and majored in Plant Biology. The college experience was very influential for his career development. He took the plant biology class taught by the late Patrick L. Healey and started thinking about teaching as a career, “Dr. Healey was my role model in teaching. He enlightened the class with humor – the tactic I am still using in my teaching every day.”

The other pivotal experience was to meet Dr. Eloy Rodriguez who introduced Edgar to the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Latinos and Native Americans in the Sciences (SACNAS). Dr. Rodriguez organized local SACNAS activities at UC Irvine at the time. Edgar recounted that Dr. Rodriguez “took everybody under his wing,” including organizing gatherings to bring the group together, providing a computer lab, and introducing them to the National SACNAS group.

Several of Edgar’s career transitions were intertwined with SACNAS. He visited Berkeley’s recruiting booth at the SACNAS national conference in his senior year of college; subsequently, he entered the Plant Biology graduate program at UC Berkeley for his PhD. His conference presentation debut at a SACNAS conference led to a NASA fellowship. For Edgar, SACNAS is more than a scientific society. The people and the cultural influence make SACNAS a family. “I always feel rejuvenated after attending the SACNAS conference,” said Edgar.


Pass the torch

With the goal for connecting Latinx faculty and students, Edgar initiated the SACNAS Student Chapter at the University of Maryland and organized events, including information panels for careers and research fellowships, mentoring workshops, and cultural gatherings. Because of the group, many undergraduate students have connected with graduate students and found research opportunities in their labs. As a group, they have attended several SACNAS national conferences, and many students have presented their research as well as helping to recruit underrepresented minority students to STEM graduate programs at UMD. Many original members of the group still keep in touch with Edgar. His dedication has been recognized by the UMD Minority Achievement Award in 2015.

SACNAS UMD Chapter; photo by courtesy of Edgar Moctezuma

Edgar’s teaching goes beyond the campus. During the COVID-19 stay-home era, Edgar has volunteered teaching classes for the ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) program. He actively participates in local community festivals where he demonstrates scientific experiments to kids and families and promotes science programs at UMD. Last year, he was one of the recipients of the Making a Difference award, which recognizes people “who go above and beyond the call of duty to positively impact the community” by The Office of Community Engagement at UMD.

Photo by courtesy of Edgar Moctezuma
Edgar demonstrated experiments for kids and family at Hispanic Festival in Langley Park; photo by courtesy of Edgar Moctezuma

Advice for early career researchers

Edgar advices early career researchers who are embarking on a teaching career to have a good structure and a plan for handling. He shared, “When I first started teaching, students seemed to be the experts of sensing inexperience. After much trial and error, I have learned when to stick to my plan and how to deal with students better.”

At the end of our conversation, Edgar showed me some of his art works, which are inspired by the iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Her works and spirit motivate Edgar: “She was a woman way ahead of her time who created art from her life experiences – and transformed many of her sufferings into amazing paintings. She was not limited by her physical disability. Despite it all, she still loved life, and is an example of resilience, perseverance, and strength.”