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Cuttino Award winner Rachelle Spell ensures mentoring for biology students, new faculty
Portrait of Rachelle Spell

As Rachelle Spell, this year’s winner of the Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring, prepares to retire, she leaves a legacy of one-to-one guidance at Emory College.

As a geneticist, Rachelle Spell, professor of pedagogy in biology, is fascinated by the hybrid advantage, especially the instant when genetic material from two plants combine to form a stronger single one. 

As a mentor, she has created life-changing moments for thousands of Emory biology majors, through one-on-one sessions and new mentoring systems across the Emory College of Arts and Sciences Department of Biology. Today, every biology student and instructor receives mentoring, and these structured relationships help them flourish by supporting each person’s “why.” 

As Spell retires after 24 years at Emory, her work is honored by the 2022 George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring. The award was established in 1997 by John T. Glover 68C in honor of the late Emory history professor who was renowned for his mentorship of students. 

“Our faculty, former postdocs and teaching assistants, as well as undergraduates, have benefited from her sound advice and her experiences,” says 2007 Cuttino Award recipient Patricia A. Marsteller, professor emerita of practice in biology and former associate dean of undergraduate research and scholarship. “She really moved us forward.”  

Junior biology faculty today benefit from peer mentors’ frank, constructive criticism to make class instruction better for students. More detailed syllabi, for example, reduce student anxiety.

“I was a bit jaded, because aren’t new faculty supposed to know how to do this?” says Department of Biology Professor and Chair Steven W. L'Hernault. “But I became convinced of the value of mentoring. We can’t make a new faculty colleague any smarter, but we can make them a better teacher because so much about teaching is beyond native intelligence." 

Harvard’s conventional wisdom

Genetics and mentoring are also about legacy. As Spell progressed through an Emory postdoc in Sue Jinks-Robertson’s lab, she considered these words from her Harvard doctoral advisers: Focus on research, because teaching “is a lesser goal,” Spell recalls.

Why couldn’t she emulate her undergraduate mentor, Wake Forest University biology professor Carole L. Browne, who had welcomed Spell to her research team, enthusiastically taught her cell biology, advised her on PhD pathways, and enjoyed family time?

“I essentially wanted to be her,” says Spell, who got her PhD at Harvard when her firstborn was six months old. Married to Nate Spell, Emory associate dean for continuing medical education, she raised their two children full-time before her Emory postdoc.

In 2003, Spell started as an Emory biology lecturer and went on to earn national recognition for her excellence in teaching, mentoring and pedagogy, and numerous grants for improving curriculum and teaching.

Browne inspires her still.

“She was a key person for information for how things work, which I think about very much when I'm advising students,” Spell says. “When they come here, there's no way they can know what college is like or what post-college will be like. Mentoring is helping them understand how things work and how to navigate.”

Each semester, 24 undergraduate biology majors — many pre-med — spent at least 45 minutes with Spell. She listens with intention to all her mentees, to understand whether they are listening to their own worthy goals and not social pressures. 

“I emphasize it's not a seat of power,” she says of mentoring. “You're helping the students explore their own reasons, making them answer, ‘Why do you love medicine? Or research? What is it that drives you?’ If you can't tell me why you’re interested in your majors, you might just think it looks better. There's a cost to checking boxes just to have two majors.”

The spell of Spell’s mentoring

Current mentees described Spell’s influence. 

“Her guidance has reminded me that my career needs to be fitted to who I am as a person, not the other way around,” says teaching assistant Donna McDermott, who completes her PhD this year.

“She connected me to past students and other professionals who have helped along my journey,” says Jen Dean, who is graduating from Emory College, who after a gap year will enter graduate studies in genetic counseling. “Her guidance is a basis for my own mentoring of younger students and peers.”

“While I was her teaching assistant, she pushed me to teach one class even though I had never taught before and didn't want to,” says Simon Mogendi, a 2017 graduate of Emory College who graduates from medical school this year. “Her challenges gave me the opportunity to develop, and led me to value high-quality teaching and mentoring. As I move on to residency, I feel confident in my ability to teach and mentor students and peers in medicine, a field that requires lifelong learning.”

“I used to view teaching as something I would get better at with time: someday, I'd be great at teaching,” says assistant professor Leila Rieder. “Professor Spell is explicit that she is still learning about pedagogy! Her growth as an educator came not simply due to experience and time, but constant investment in her own pedagogical learning. We have all benefited.” 

Moving forward

The pandemic gave Spell time to consider her own why. After the challenge of moving her elderly parents to Atlanta, she will care for them while planning future projects in retirement.

“Having taught more than 5,000 students over my career feels really fulfilling,” she says. “And I am most proud of things I've done that have helped create community.”

As director of introductory biology, she organized multiple instructors to share objectives, materials and tips. When she directed undergraduate research, the number of participating students grew from 25 per semester to more than 150. When she was director of undergraduate studies, the teaching mentoring program launched. “Helping others be the best teachers they can be is really powerful,” she reflects.

The mentoring infrastructure she created developed into a formidable institutional hybrid because of strong supporters like Marsteller and fellow professors of pedagogy Arri Eisen and Chris Beck. Professors Eddie Nam and Miguel Reyes will lead the Biology Majors at Emory (BioME) group that she helped establish to help biology majors mentor new students.

Spell leaves advice for aspiring mentors.

“Clarify the path that the student wants; don’t make assumptions that everybody understands how things work,” she says. “And you can’t hurry it, if you want to find out how their life is going. Mentoring is dedicated time.”

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