Getting to know Dr. Sri beyond the classroom

Dr. Rekha Srinivasan, better known as Dr. Sri, teaches in the chemistry department at Case Western Reserve University. She not only assists her upper year students in their class work but also introduces sophomores to the world of organic chemistry. Her lab focuses its research on ABri peptides, working to achieve a greater understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and other abnormal protein folding diseases. The Observer wanted to find out more about Dr. Srinivasan—her work, her classroom, and her family—so we decided to track down the woman herself.

Tara Tran, Staff Reporter

Q: At what point did you know that you wanted to teach chemistry?

A: I have always had a natural inclination towards sciences: chemistry in particular because it was so real to me. When I went to college, I dove into the world of physics, math and chemistry. I enjoyed math, but I really couldn’t see the real world applications. Physics had too many equations. Chemistry was attractive to me: I could smell it, I could touch it and I really saw the equations on paper come to life in the lab. The squiggles, the carbons and everything in between were tangible. As for teaching at college, I was deciding between high school and college. I have always had a passion for teaching and I thought that dealing with the collegiate group would be much better. I don’t know if I regret this now.

Q: Organic chemistry is notoriously known for being the “weed out” for pre-health students. Do you personally believe in this hype?

A: In my opinion, organic chemistry is not a particularly difficult concept. I do agree that it’s a lot of hard work, but compare it with any other class and it comes out to the same level. What I encourage my students to do right at the beginning of each semester is to bundle their prejudices and drown them away because when you come into something expecting it to be difficult—it will be. In response to the “weed out,” I think it is and will be if you are not truly there to learn organic chemistry and treat it as a checklist. You need to want it. How would I approach it? Did I take courses that I didn’t like or didn’t need again? Of course. My viewpoint is this: I spent money on this, so I’m going to spend my time as well and I will definitely learn it. Therefore, I’m going to give it my best shot. A great attitude goes a long way. I also want to point out that I am always willing to help-my door is always open, there’s really no excuse not to stop by: Go ahead and pick my brains apart.

Q: Can you tell me more about yourself beyond your role as an organic chemistry professor?

A: At face value, I am very passionate about cooking, fundraising for education for girls, travelling and reading about philosophies and religions. The most important thing to me is my family. I remember it being late and those experiments in the lab that day followed anything but protocol. I go home grudgingly after a stressful, unsuccessful and difficult day at the research lab: it’s my second semester of my PhD program. Research is hard. Things don’t work, you want to give up, but you go home, and you see your beautiful baby daughter, Swathi, and everything makes sense again. You see her trying to walk and she falls, but she tries again and again. Something inside her keeps her going and at that moment in time, it was really inspirational. We are all inherently born with this grit, but somehow, somewhere along the way we forget that we have it.
Ultimately, I am who I am because of my family, and that’s why I work so hard. The only way I can truly repay my parents for everything they have given me is to give everything I can to my daughter and other children. My husband and I are actually from an arranged marriage—I only knew him for 10 minutes before we were engaged. He’s been my biggest supporter and biggest champion and I wouldn’t imagine who I am today without him.

Q: Some of your harshest ratings said “She’s tough” and “The tests are difficult”—what are your feelings and responses to this?

A: It’s so funny that you bring this up because I used to check these rigorously, especially when I first started teaching because I felt that I forgot what it was like to be a student. Funny story: One rating in particular said “Dr. Sri is” followed by 5 stars. And I thought “Wow. How nice. This student thinks I’m a top notch teacher—she gave me five stars.” However, after telling my husband, he pointed out that it was actually a curse word that was censored.
Humor aside, if I am tough, I am only doing it because I know that my students are capable of a lot more than they are giving me. Students here have busy lives: they take five other courses, a lab position and are presidents of three clubs. But the key to everything is balance. I’m 100 percent mom, 100 percent wife, 100 percent professor; whatever it is, I give 100 percent. I don’t take from some and give to others. If I talked to 40 students today and I go home, I’m not going to not talk to my daughter because I gave too much to my students today. I am not blessed with something special: I plan, organize, manage time and put my heart into everything. Everyone is going to have difficulties. That’s what life is. Besides, if everything goes your way, what is it that you have to look forward to?