Monica Hall-Woods, associate professor of biology at St. Charles Community College, learned early on the value of learning on the job. From ages 13-18, Monica volunteered at the Pittsburgh Children’s Zoo. Later, a zookeeper internship at the Cincinnati Zoo taught her about rhinos, zebras and antelopes.
While at Penn State earning her bachelor’s degree in animal bioscience, she took on internships at the Pittsburgh Zoo and Pittsburgh Aviary, one of which led to a job and a once-in-a-lifetime experience in Kenya. By the time she was in graduate school at Saint Louis University, it was the Saint Louis Zoo that became her home-away-from-home as she learned and worked in the field of reproductive physiology, all the way through to the completion of her doctoral degree and post-doc work.
More than half of college graduates say that they regret not gaining more work experience while they were in college, according to a February 2014 report by the Pew Research Center. Work experience, like internships, provide students with awareness about the right career, the skills and experience to land a good job.
“Internships give you real insight into a career,” she said. And it’s this conviction that has broadened her perspective in the classroom and as a mentor to her students.
“I never intended to teach,” Monica said. “I was going to be a zoo researcher. But when I was a SLU I earned a certificate in university teaching.”
Life’s twists and turns brought Monica and her husband to St. Peters and, in 2002, she started as an adjunct faculty member in biology at SCC. In 2008 she became a full-time faculty member and now serves as the Biology Program chair.
Now fully ensconced in the SCC campus, she pours the same dedication into her classroom that was once saved for the research lab.
“She focuses her professional development opportunities on being the best teacher she can be, and she brings back that energy and education to her colleagues,” said Chris Breitmeyer, vice president for academic and student affairs, who served as her dean when she became a full-time faculty member. “Monica demystifies science, which can sometimes be a daunting subject to take on. She models what a scientist does and she transfers it in a very relaxed manner. Her experience at the zoo makes her a better teacher.”
Sarah Ruhland will attest to that. Now a science teacher at Fort Zumwalt West High School, Sarah was once a student in Monica’s class. “She focused on making the concepts applicable to our lives and tried to use strategies and activities to help her students understand,” Ruhland said. “She kept classes interesting by incorporating visuals, real-life examples and humor into her lessons.”
Monica picked up on Ruhland’s interest and drive and recommended her for an internship at the Saint Louis Zoo. “I knew I wanted to teach, but I was open to teaching in a less formal setting that the zoo had to offer in their education department,” Ruhland said. Monica offered to oversee her internship so Sarah would gain experience and college credit. “She helped to build my skills professionally, academically and personally during that internship.”
As director of research at the Saint Louis Zoo, Cheryl Asa, Ph.D., has served as both research and mentor to Monica. “She poured herself into whatever she took on,” Asa said. “She is very bright and learns quickly. There are a lot of bright people out there, but not many have the motivation and energy she possesses.”
Knowing the benefits of working while you learn, especially at the zoo, Monica encourages that same philosophy with her students, and Asa agrees. “Students read about things in a textbook and then see it in action during an internship,” she said. “That kind of connection is so valuable.”
Monica enjoys building those connections with students but also is known for her collaborative efforts with her colleagues. In addition to her biology program chair duties, she also works on several college committees, takes part in multicultural events and co-sponsors the SCC Science Club with Beth Michael-Smith, SCC chemistry instructor.
“I know regardless of how daunting the project we are working on is, together we will manage to make it enjoyable. Monica is part of the leadership that makes the science department enjoyable,” she said. “She has so many fascinating stories from her experience in the lab, at the zoo, and teaching that you can always come to her with questions or for a laugh. She is smart, hilarious and totally a nerd.”
It’s her humor and willingness to show her students that “nerdy” side, that make her relatable in the classroom, according to John Bookstaver, SCC dean of business, science, education, math and computer science. “She is student-focused. She cares, and that comes across readily to her students,” Bookstaver said. “They would walk through walls for her, which not only speaks volumes about her, but also sets the table for an environment in which true learning can take place.”
Whether that learning comes in the classroom, the lab, at an internship, or during a club meeting, the researcher-turned-educator exudes passion for her work and the opportunities she can bring to light for her students. “I tell my students to take advantage of what’s in front of you. This is the time to fuel your fire. You may fall into something your really love.”