Awakening Curiosity

0313_elon_elementary_13Randolph professor balances love for research with passion for teaching

Sarah Lawson Sojka remembers gathering around the kitchen sink with childhood friends, trying to find a way to remove the smell from black pepper.

They did not succeed, but that experience only fueled the curiosity that has motivated her to study and work in the science field. “I think a lot of kids are scientists. They’re inquisitive,” Sojka said. “I just never grew out of it.”

Today, Sojka spends most of her time helping students develop that same kind of curiosity.

Her days are filled with teaching Randolph College students and helping them with research projects. But this spring, she also took time to volunteer to teach local elementary school students about earthquakes and seismology using Slinkys and shake tables.

The classroom was the last place Sojka thought she would end up, especially since she was ready to swear off teaching forever by the time she finished her Ph.D.

“I was one of those burned-out students who wanted nothing to do with academia,” she recalled. After earning her degree, she went into the private sector.

Then, a college friend invited Sojka to return to their alma mater, Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., to honor the retirement of their first college professor.

Reconnecting with her former professors and classmates caused Sojka to rethink her career decision. “It helped me remember that there was a very different version of an academic life than what I had seen at research universities while I was in grad school,” she said. “What I did want was a teaching academic life.”

In 2012, she began teaching environmental studies and physics at Randolph.

One of Sojka’s favorite parts of teaching is helping students learn by research. This summer, she is helping students research native plants that remove lead from soil, the environmental influences that reduce erosion by promotingbiofilmgrowth,andthe effectiveness of filtering rainwater before storing it for later use.

Bri Conrad ’15 was surprised, but also honored, when Sojka invited her to work on biofilm research with her. “She really does want the best for her students, and if there’s an opportunity for us, she’s eager to let us jump on board,” she said. “She wants us to do independent work, so that she’s not telling us everything we have to do, but she’s guiding us in the right direction.”

Sojka is happy to see students accept that challenge and seek to answer questions about the world. “A lot of it is just either awakening or encouraging their curiosity and their desire to find out more, and their inquisitiveness,” she said. “To constantly be talking about new ideas and stretching your own mind, that’s something exciting about teaching.”