Women to Watch at UA Little Rock – Ronia Kattoum

Faculty Excellence nominee Ronia Kattoum. Photo by Ben Krain.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, UA Little Rock is profiling women in leadership positions who are making a difference at UA Little Rock and in the community. 

The next Woman to Watch at UA Little Rock of 2021 is Ronia Kattoum, instructor of chemistry and the 2021 recipient of the Faculty Excellence Award in Teaching for the Donaghey College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. She’s also earning her Ph.D. in applied sciences-chemistry at UA Little Rock and is a mother of four

Tell us about yourself and your background?

I was born in the occupied territories of Palestine. I grew up there until third grade. We moved here with my family when I was 9 years old. Because I spoke Arabic, they had no place to put me so they put me in a normal classroom. I took some ESL classes with some of the Spanish-speaking students, but I didn’t speak Spanish. By fifth grade, I had learned the language well enough that I was back to making As in class.

My family has been super supportive. I grew up in the Chicago area for most of my life. I went through high school there. I was accepted at an academy for STEM students, and I went to Loyola University in Chicago where I majored in chemistry. Early on, I was planning to go to dental school, and then I fell in love with chemistry. I was 19 when I got married, and I had my first child at 20. My kids are now 15, 13, 11, and 6. 

I initially made some compromises to take care of my family, but I was driven to continue my education. I knew I wanted to teach at the college level, so I pursued two master’s degrees in chemistry and higher education at UA Little Rock. After seven years of teaching, I decided to get my Ph.D. 

What are your professional duties at UA Little Rock?

I teach 3-4 classes every semester in the Department of Chemistry. I’m also the freshman programs coordinator, so I oversee the freshman labs and all the graduate teaching assistants. I mentor them through the process of teaching, monitor their assessment, and I also train them on safety and how to run the lab and make sure students maintain best practices in safety protocols. I’m heavily involved in their pedagogical training, and I’m vested to increase success for all our students by empowering the people who teach those labs. That’s very important to me.

I also helped start the undergraduate learning assistant program with one of my colleagues, Dr. Mark Baillie. That involves mentoring and training the undergraduate learning assistants who  help facilitate learning in large enrollment classes. We wanted to see how we can help by giving students extra support systems. We are hoping to expand the program outside the chemistry department, and have recently hired a program coordinator, Dr. Michael Moore, to assist with this endeavor to increase student success across the college.  

I was also part of the Mobile Institute on Scientific Teaching that is led by Dr. Mark Baillie. I was a participant in 2019 and became a facilitator in 2020 to help train other faculty in evidence-based best teaching practices. I am dedicated to helping other faculty and graduate students and undergraduate learning assistants become better teachers.

I am also the coordinator for the teacher licensure program for undergraduate chemistry students who want to teach K-12 as well as the concurrent enrollment coordinator for chemistry classes. Before COVID-19, I would visit the enrolled high schools in person. My service is heavily vested in the success of the department and the university. I am also in Faculty Senate. Most recently, I serve on the Chancellor’s Race and Ethnicity Advisory Committee.

There is an alignment between my teaching, my service, and my research. The common denominator is student success while maintaining academic rigor and standards. I have a love and passion for education. I love my job. If you love your job, you never have to work a day in your life. I’m also a single parent now, so I split my time and am very efficient. Squeezing in a little bit of me time is important and helps keep me sane. 

What’s next in your professional career?

Since I’ve been officially admitted into my Ph.D. program in the summer of 2020, my goal is to finish by 2024. Because I love being an instructor, I am hoping to use my Ph.D. to do research and maybe go after a tenure-track position in the future. I would love to have my research be an official part of my job description. I would also love to start a pedagogy course for graduate students.

My Ph.D. research is heavily involved in chemical education research. My dissertation will involve improving student success in the chemical sciences. I recently received the Bridge Award from the American Chemical Society. It’s geared toward underrepresented groups in the sciences, and it provides funding for Ph.D. students to take professional development courses. I am using this award to take social network analysis courses to help with my dissertation research.

Right now, I am looking at social network analysis and chemical education research. My Ph.D. will be focused on looking at the interactions between our graduate students and what kind of conversations they are having. If we are trying to increase student success, we need to have better teachers, not just better researchers. We want to teach our graduate students to follow evidence-based best teaching practices. I am using computer modeling and social network analysis to see how the networks of graduate students hinder or enhance their graduate student experience.

What woman has inspired you the most and why?

Marie Curie would be the No. 1 woman that comes to mind. Her work and perseverance was necessary for women in science. I watched her movie “Radioactive” and have read many books about her. She struggled to be heard among men at a time when women weren’t seen as serious scientists. We have made many huge strides since her time, but women are still underrepresented in science today, and it’s still a serious issue. There are only two women in our department. Noureen Siraj is also a mom of four. She has been an inspiration to me in that she is a mom and still has time for research. These women definitely give me the energy to keep working hard and moving forward.

How do you encourage K-12 students to get excited about science education?

I do volunteer with schools because I believe in outreach for the younger children. I have done science demonstrations for high school students and gone to elementary schools to complete experiments on Elephant Toothpaste. I’ve done Mom/Son Science Night at Bryant Elementary. We made slime with them, and the kids loved it. I also do a science trick where I can make colors appear and disappear with acids and bases. It gives students the idea that moms can be scientists too, and it inspires girls to be scientists at a young age.

I’ve also volunteered with the Girl Scouts, and some of the girls said they’ve never thought about going into science before this. It warmed my heart to hear that because I’m very passionate about science and STEM education.

How have you adapted to COVID?

I was fortunate in that I’ve always experimented with technology and adapted technology in my classroom whether we were in COVID times or not. It hasn’t been as difficult to transition, but I miss my classroom. I hold synchronous classes online, and I can still engage my students while being online with ample opportunities to interact with one another in breakout rooms under the leadership of their Learning Assistants and live polling. I want the students involved with the material and with each other and build a sense of community during these isolating and difficult times.

While I can’t wait to go back to the classroom, this experience has also given me plenty of bright ideas. Even though it was a horrible situation for humanity, I believe we can use this as an opportunity to learn and come out better on the other side.

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