Alexa Zimbalist Receives 2021 Outstanding GSI Award in Engineering

The Graduate Division and Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) Teaching and Resource Center recently presented Alexa (Ally) Zimbalist with the Outstanding GSI Award in Engineering. The Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor (OGSI) Award honors over 200 UC Berkeley GSIs each year and recipients are nominated from within their teaching department. She received this award for the E295 Communications for Engineering Leaders course.

Ally is a second year Master of Science (MS) student in Epidemiology at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. Her research interests include maternal mental health and environmental health. She received her BA in Public Health from UC Berkeley in 2014. Prior to returning to Berkeley for her graduate studies, Ally worked as a legal assistant at Sierra Club, helping attorneys shut down coal plants in the US, and as a political organizer on congressional campaigns.

Here, we had the opportunity to catch up with Ally, reflect on her teaching experience, and learn more about how she spends her free time.

Can you share a bit about yourself and the class you help teach in the MEng program?

I am a second year Master of Science candidate in epidemiology at the School of Public Health and am excited to be graduating in a few weeks! This past fall and spring, I helped teach E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. The fall course focused on strengthening oral and written communication skills, while the spring course emphasized applying those skills to the capstone projects. I have really enjoyed my experience as a graduate student instructor with Fung. I love teaching and mentoring students, and have especially enjoyed teaching such a diverse group of students from all over the world!

As someone studying public health, how have you found teaching engineering students?

At first I was a little nervous about teaching engineering students because I lack engineering knowledge. It turned out to be an awesome experience. This course helps teach students how to communicate the findings of their interesting, and often highly technical work, to an audience that may not have domain knowledge. As someone without an engineering background, I found myself to be the perfect target audience! Additionally, some of the engineering capstone projects were directly related to public health which was exciting for me.

How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

Approachability, positivity, and strong communication are key! I try to bring a lot of positivity and energy to class in the hopes that it may be a bit contagious. As a student myself, I know how challenging it is to stay motivated, energized, and focused during Zoom instruction. I hope the added energy and positivity helps students stay engaged. I also believe that as teachers and mentors we learn just as much from our students as we try to teach them. This has definitely been true for my E295 experience. I have learned so much from my students and have improved my own leadership and communication skills.

What are some lessons you’ve learned through teaching?

This is a lesson I’ve learned through teaching but applies to the world-at-large: never assume you know what people are going through. This year has been incredibly challenging for so many people in so many different ways. During in-person school, but especially during a pandemic, a student not paying attention in class doesn’t necessarily mean they are not interested. There could be so many other things going on. I’ve learned the importance of making yourself approachable as a teacher so that students feel comfortable sharing with you. I also learned the power of vulnerability — making yourself vulnerable as a teacher can help students feel comfortable to do the same and at the end of the day, makes our relationships stronger.

I also learned the power of vulnerability — making yourself vulnerable as a teacher can help students feel comfortable to do the same and at the end of the day, makes our relationships stronger.

How do you spend your free time?

My free time activities have definitely changed quite a bit since the start of the pandemic. I used to love to go to dance classes, comedy shows, and attempt to cook meals with my friends. Now my free time has shifted towards online dance classes, long walks, and social distance park hangouts. I have a goal to take up surfing as well, but it has yet to happen!

Anything else you’d like to share with the Fung Institute community?

Thank you for the opportunity to serve as a graduate student instructor this past year. It has been a wonderful experience for me and I have enjoyed getting to know the awesome faculty, staff, and students. A special thank you to all of those that nominated me for this award. I am so flattered and honored.

Connect with Ally.

Learn more about the Fung Institute at funginstitute.berkeley.edu.

Edited by Ashley Villanueva

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