By Jordan Beach
Many departments on campus provide students with enriching educational experiences while receiving their undergraduate degree, and Dr. Irma Santoro understands the importance of those types of opportunities.
During her undergraduate, Santoro originally wanted to pursue the medical field. Her microbiology and genetics professor Dr. Valerie Flechtner influenced her the most, acting as her research mentor and providing the chance for Santoro to conduct her undergraduate research project on cloning bacteria.
“I never had the experience of conducting my very own research project and found it so invigorating to contribute to science by discovering something completely new,” said Santoro, associate professor of biology. “This experience gave me the confidence to apply to graduate school.”
Not only did Santoro attend graduate school, she received her doctorate in molecular genetics, biochemistry and microbiology from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine in 1998 and went on to complete two postdoctoral fellowships.
Before becoming biology program coordinator at Reinhardt University in 2008, Santoro’s career led her down several paths, such as becoming a Scientific Database Curation Consultant for Cognia Inc. and a Web-Based Technical Training Course Scriptor and Editor for General Electric in Georgia’s energy division.
Despite many years involved in higher education, education did not always come easy to Santoro. A native to Venezuela, where much of her family still resides, she moved to the United States at the age of five and learned her alphabet in second grade. Between learning a new language and an undiagnosed learning disability, Santoro struggled in school.
“The plight of an immigrant and someone trying to make a difference in a foreign place is something that I truly understand. Now I am helping others through education to find their way. I find this very rewarding because I have a great understanding of how difficult it can be to be the first in your family to attend and graduate from college. I have a special place in my heart for many of our students who struggle with learning disabilities and have had to struggle with fitting in and adjusting to a new environment.”
Santoro now uses her love of science to encourage students to pursue the field. The fields Santoro focuses on within biology are genetic engineering and biotechnology, which she describes as the “intersection of biology and technology leading to tools to enrich our lives,” making day-to-day living easier and healthier. She considers it as one of the most exciting and evolving biological fields.
“I know that the field of biotechnology is going to be one of the most important fields impacting our lives in the future and that developing a future work force in this field will be critical to our well-being. Therefore, I take any opportunity that I can get to assist with this task of inspiring students to consider the importance of teaching and research in biology.”
Santoro believes students interested in biotechnology or other STEM fields should have strong mentoring and opportunities for exposure to research in the field, much like her Fletchner provided. She was one of the four faculty involved in securing the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program grant from the National Science Foundation for Reinhardt, nearly a million dollars to fund STEM opportunities and provide education to students pursuing teaching degrees in STEM subjects.
As she provides guidance and valuable learning experiences throughout her teaching career, Santoro received awards like the United Methodist Exemplary Teaching Award in 2011. She wants students to know that life is about learning and that biology, the study of life, is all about asking and answering questions.
“The study of biology is learning a process to understand who we are and how we exist on our planet. In my classroom, I really love to bring learning about biology to life by showing students how biology impacts almost every aspect of their everyday lives from the food that they eat to the detergents they use and even to the energy that powers their home or dorm room. I want them to have some knowledge and appreciation for many of these processes.”
When she’s not researching or teaching the study of life, Santoro enjoys walking, listening to jazz, reading and attending live arts performances. Santoro loves playing trivia and is a founding member of the RU Ready trivia team, where she plays with her Reinhardt colleagues.