Current undergraduate peer learning assistants (UAs) reflect on their experience in Chem 192 with Laurence Lavelle

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Dr. Laurence Lavelle

The current undergraduate peer learning assistants (UAs) in the Chem 192 C/D classes self-reflect and describe their growth as students, peers, educators, and mentors in the undergraduate assistant teaching practicum conceived and created by Dr. Laurence Lavelle over 12 years ago.

By Dr. Laurence Lavelle

In 2010 undergraduate peer-to-peer learning was new and it took several years to convince both my department and UCLA of its multiple benefits and create this undergraduate teaching practicum to facilitate the support and growth of our terrific undergraduate students. It is a privilege and joy to see the collective benefit and growth of all students participating in the multi-faceted peer-to-peer learning environments (workshops, step-up sessions, drop-in sessions, Chemistry Community) I voluntary created, organize, and maintain without university administrative assistance, funding, or titles. After a successful dozen years and approximately 2,000 enrolled students in my classes per year, this is the first article or publication about this teaching practicum. Enjoy our undergraduate’s self-description in their own words.

Celebrating another successful year of collaborative and highly supportive education. Front Row (L to R) Yixin (Isabella) Wu, Cassidy Chiong, Nikta Seyedin, Emerald Wong, Natalie Keung, Anamika Patel, Ashley Tonthat, Madhavi Akella
Back Row (L to R) Sadhana Jeyakumar, Kathe Zappacosta, Vivek Chotai, Dr. Laurence Lavelle, Gabriel Nitro, Adila Ahmed, Shrinidhy Srinivas, Nika Gladkov, Margaret Xu, Patrick Ngo, Sam Leistiko, Jaden Nguyen, Jillian Sarquiz (not shown)

The following reflections are written by the 2023-24 undergraduate peer learning assistants (UAs) in Dr. Lavelle’s Chem 192 C/D classes. They describe their growth as students, peers, educators, and mentors in the undergraduate assistant teaching practicum.

“Being a UA for Dr. Lavelle allowed me to combine my passions for chemistry and teaching in one experience and I couldn’t be more grateful! As a part of the pandemic class, I remember how stressful the first few quarters of freshman year were with getting used to college classes over zoom and not having an in-person support group. The UAs were lifesavers for all of us and pushed me to become a UA. Over the last three years, I’ve been able to interact with so many people and strengthen my teaching skills. This experience was one of the highlights of my college journey and I hope to continue my passion for teaching in medical school!” Adila Ahmed, Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics B.S., Minor in South Asian Studies (Class of 2024)

“When I took Chem 14B with Dr. Lavelle, I felt incredibly supported by the UA Program. UAs were instrumental in providing resources and guided help throughout one of the first of many challenging courses of my college career. The efforts put in by Dr. Lavelle and the UAs gave me encouragement and furthered my love for chemistry. I was so excited to become a part of the UA program with some of the UAs that taught and inspired me! My first year as a UA was an amazing experience because I got to carry out my passion for teaching and meet so many new people. I enjoyed sharing my tips and tricks and being there for my students, whether it be for conceptual and mathematical understanding or general concerns about the class. I also loved seeing students meet each other and become friends and study buddies, as this really demonstrates the power of collaborative learning that Dr. Lavelle achieved through this program. Overall, it has been an incredibly rewarding experience to be a UA and I look forward to continuing throughout my next two years at UCLA.” Anamika Patel, Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology B.S. (Class of 2026)

Cake celebrating the accomplishments of the “Pandemic Fall 2020” class, now well on their way to a successful 2024 graduation.

“Chemistry was my favorite subject in high school, and I enjoyed learning it even more when I entered college. Dr. Lavelle’s Chem 14A/B were the first classes I took in my freshman year during the 2021/2022 hybrid terms, and I felt I had a really supportive learning experience during my first year of college because of the UA program. Dr. Lavelle and all the UAs went above and beyond to provide extra resources that helped me better understand the concepts. Whenever I had a question or needed further explanations, I could always rely on the responsiveness of Dr. Lavelle 24/7 on Chemistry Community, or even just feeling comfortable asking a UA during one of their sessions. I could see how much time and effort the whole teaching team put into the class, which made me want to apply and be a part of the UA program. I’m truly grateful to be able to give back and be a part of the team to help students succeed in understanding general chemistry as previous UAs have done for me. I’ve really enjoyed working with and getting to know the students: the most rewarding part of this program is seeing when students truly understand something they didn’t realize before and connecting with students that come back to future sessions. Being a part of the UA program has allowed me to continue my passion for both teaching and chemistry, and it’s a huge reason why I’m interested in pursuing a PhD in the future.” Ashley Tonthat, Microbiology, Immunology & Molecular Genetics B.S., Biomedical Research Minor (Class of 2025)

“The height of COVID hit during my junior year of high school, during which I was taking AP Chemistry. Disruption of classes left me navigating chemistry alone, creating my own study materials. Taking chemistry as my first college class became daunting; I was unsure if I was prepared enough to succeed in the class, all while navigating an entirely new environment. The UAs gave me a sense of relief and direction, both within and outside of the course. Their problem-solving sessions allowed me to understand not just the “what,” but the “why’s” and the “how’s” in chemistry, which made my favorite subject even more enjoyable. I set out to do the same for my peers and became a UA during my second year, which has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Seeing the moments of clarity and excitement in my students is the most fulfilling part of being a UA. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a resource for my peers, just as the UAs were for me.” Cassidy Chiong, Human Biology and Society (Class of 2025) 

“I started my time at UCLA online as a 2020 high school graduate, and I didn’t come into college with a strong background. My high school was not as strong in educational opportunities, and I did not take AP Chemistry. Chem 14A was one of the first classes I took here, and I found so much support through attending the UA sessions online. It felt like I had found a sense of community, and I knew I wanted to become a UA to emulate the patience and guidance I received during my time taking the class. Dr. Lavelle has been an amazing mentor, and he has always made the effort to support all that we do outside of chemistry too. After graduation, I will be working as a Clinical Research Coordinator Associate at Stanford University’s Division of Neonatology before applying to med school.” Emerald Wong, Human Biology & Society B.S., Public Health Minor (Class of 2024)

One of the thank you cards from current undergraduate peer learning assistants.

“It was a pleasure to interact with students and cultivate a deeper understanding (and appreciation) for chemistry in Chem 14A & 14B. Being a UA for Dr. Lavelle and the UCLA community was a truly inspiring experience, and I hope to continue building on assets the UA program gave me when I enter graduate school this summer at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) at Stanford University!” Gabriel Nitro, Biochemistry B.S., Science Education Minor (Class of 2024)

“As someone who struggled immensely with chemistry throughout high school, I was terrified of what was to come in Chem 14A and Chem 14B. However, I quickly realized that Dr. Lavelle was very different from the professors I had before. Instead of turning students away when they were struggling, Dr. Lavelle redirected us towards the UA sessions where we could practice on a “playground” created by students who had done well in his classes. Being able to collaborate with other students allowed me and so many others to pick apart each other’s brains to figure out how to learn chemistry properly, and is ultimately what prompted me to become a UA. The past two years as a UA have been a transformative experience as I’ve gotten the opportunity to share and develop not just my passion for chemistry, but also my passion for teaching. Connecting with new and returning faces in my sessions has reaffirmed my belief that learning is fluid and ever-changing for every student. Every one of my sessions’ goals is to ensure every student understands the week’s content, even if it goes past my designated time because I wish I had someone explain content to me all those years ago. These experiences are what have driven me to pursue a PhD and eventually a career in university teaching.” Jaden Nguyen, Biology B.S. (Class of 2025)

“When I was taking Chem 14A and 14B, I always felt supported by Dr. Lavelle’s plethora of resources and genuine desire to help us succeed. Anytime I had a question, I would pop in a UA session or post on Chemistry Community and receive an answer within minutes. During the weekly workshops, the UAs simplified difficult concepts, encouraged us to think outside the box, and fostered a sense of belonging. Ultimately, Dr. Lavelle’s unwavering support and the UAs’ passion for chemistry inspired me to become a UA and help the following classes. Now as a UA, I have the privilege of helping students conquer challenging problems, facilitating open discussions, and being part of their chemistry journey. Seeing students consistently show up, participate, and ask great questions, I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to not only help them have their own “ah-ha” moments but also fall in love with chemistry too. As I graduate from UCLA this Spring, I can confidently say that Dr. Lavelle and his UA program have helped me become a better student and human being, and I can only hope to have the same impact on students. These positive experiences will carry with me as I am applying for medical school this cycle.” Jillian Sarquiz, B.S., Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology (Class of 2024)

“Being a UA for Dr. Lavelle has been an amazing experience. I have always really really enjoyed chemistry which was only furthered when I took Chem 14A and 14B with Dr. Lavelle my freshman year. The UAs that I had during this time were absolutely amazing and truly helped motivate me in these classes. Their kindness and support made me want to become a UA myself and pass this support down to the next year of students. I am so grateful for this opportunity and feel like I have really grown as a person and become more independent. I have also really discovered my love for teaching, and will continue to carry this with me as I continue working as an EMT before applying to PA school!” Kathe Zappacosta, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology (Class of 2025)

“Being a UA for chemistry has been an inspiring, rewarding, and transformative experience. I had a wonderful experience in 14B. Dr. Lavelle’s commitment to educating the next generation of scientists was clear in every lecture. As a student who immensely benefited from his UA program, I was motivated to become a UA myself. I wanted to offer the same guidance and support that I received as a student in general chemistry. Hosting weekly step-up-sessions and drop-in office hours has been incredibly rewarding because I get the opportunity to help other students understand the content. It has also helped me become a better teacher, and thus, a better student. I appreciate Dr. Lavelle’s leadership and support for the UA program because it truly demonstrates his commitment to student learning. By integrating the peer support system into his class, Dr. Lavelle acknowledges the diverse needs of students and creates an inclusive environment that fosters collaborative learning. The UA program, at its core, is invested in ensuring that every student has the resources and support they need to succeed. I am appreciative that I have the opportunity to be a UA and I am excited to continue to support students through the program!” Madhavi Akella, Human Biology and Society B.S. (Class of 2025)

“I took Chemistry 14A/B with Dr. Lavelle when the pandemic first started, and I remember feeling so overwhelmed at first. But the UA program was truly a lifeline. Although workshops were on Zoom, I always felt a great sense of community–students chatted about their day, UAs gave college advice, and everyone came together to work through the week’s content. I could tell how much Dr. Lavelle and the UAs truly cared about their students, which was what prompted me to join the program myself. As a UA for three years and a UAA for two years, I am forever grateful for this learning and teaching opportunity. The program has nurtured my love for teaching, and I hope to extend this passion throughout medical school and beyond.” Margaret Xu, Psychobiology (Class of 2024)

“I’ve loved seeing chemistry in a different light when teaching it to other peers. I took Chem 14A and B during the hybrid classes in 2021/2022 so I’ve had all the experiences in Dr. Lavelle’s classes in my 3 years at UCLA. It’s amazing how much effort Dr. Lavelle puts into supporting all his students and I’m so lucky I was able to experience his support as a student and as a part of the team supporting other peers. After I graduate, I hope to continue working as an EMT, potentially moving to working in the Fire Department, before going to med school!” Natalie Keung, Biology (Class of 2024)

“As a member of the first “pandemic class”, being a UA for Dr. Lavelle was truly the highlight of my college career. Online classes during the first few quarters of my freshman year felt so isolating and distant, so Dr. Lavelle really stood out when he went out of his way to connect with us in Chem 14A and B—and his UA workshops became the first community I had in college. Motivated by how much the UAs helped me when I was a freshman, I became a UA myself as a sophomore and haven’t looked back for the past three years. Dr Lavelle places so much trust in us by allowing us to teach students directly, which has really pushed me to not only grow my knowledge of chemistry but also my pedagogical and communication skills. In fact, my time as a UA has inspired my interest in academia as a future career path!” Nika Gladkov, Biochemistry (Class of 2024)

“UA sessions were a significant part of my understanding of concepts and problem-solving when I was a student in Chem 14B. I always felt comfortable making mistakes during the UA sessions, and my learning was greatly enhanced in this peer environment. The wonderful experience I had with the UA sessions inspired me to become a UA so I could help students the way I had been helped. It was incredibly rewarding to see students attending my sessions over two quarters and improving their problem-solving skills and understanding of chemistry concepts. I am truly grateful for Dr. Lavelle’s dedication to his class and the UA program, where students can benefit from these extra resources to succeed.” Nikta Seyedin, Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics B.S., Biomedical Research Minor (Class of 2026)

“UA sessions were important in my learning when I was in Chem 14B as a student. Now, helping out as a UA has been an incredibly meaningful experience. It was exciting to see students – both new and returning – come to my sessions over the course of two quarters and improve their understanding of fundamental concepts in chemistry. It has been an amazing opportunity to see students come week after week and make amazing accomplishments throughout Chem 14A/B. I’m incredibly grateful for how much effort Dr. Lavelle has put into developing a program like this where students can help other students succeed!” Patrick Ngo, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology (Class of 2026)

“I moved around a lot in high school, and with my last year being online, I felt I lacked a solid chemistry foundation when I started college. I was worried that the pace of the coursework would leave me behind. Thankfully, Dr. Lavelle took the time at the beginning of Chem 14A and Chem 14B to review basic chemistry concepts and skills. The UA sessions were also a great support system, allowing me to review materials in a welcoming peer environment. These experiences inspired me to become a UA so I could also offer a friendly space where everyone can learn and grow without judgment, and all questions are welcome. Heading into my third year as a UA and final year at UCLA, I look forward to helping students grow while refreshing my chemistry knowledge as I plan to tutor during my gap year before medical school.” Sadhana Jeyakumar, Human Biology & Society B.S., Asian American Studies Minor (Class of 2025)

“As a student in Chem 14B, I was inspired by Dr. Lavelle’s passion for teaching, and for chemistry. I felt like Dr. Lavelle pushed us to gain a deep understanding of course material in a way that many classes do not. I was impressed by the rigor and content of the class, and I wanted to help other students find the same joy for chemistry that I have. As a UA, I have been privileged to interact with the incredibly intelligent and motivated students that come to my sessions. It has been a pleasure to work with all of my students, and it has been particularly rewarding to form connections with the students who regularly attend my sessions, and to watch them succeed on their exams. Being a UA has helped me find my own passion for teaching, and has been a large part of why I am now interested in pursuing a PhD and a career as a university professor.” Sam Leistiko, MIMG B.S., Minor in Biomedical Research (Class of 2026)

“Chem 14A and 14B with Dr. Lavelle was one of my favorite classes that I took throughout college and it was a really great introduction to college, especially being online. The UAs were a key component of that experience since they made the class that much more enjoyable and interesting. I knew that I wanted to make that same impact on students. After three years of hosting UA workshops, I have been able to give back in the same way that I was helped freshman year. Honing my teaching skills and connecting with students has been such a valuable experience in my undergraduate career and I’m forever indebted to Dr. Lavelle for granting me and all my fellow UAs this opportunity! I know it will come in useful upon attending medical school!” Shrinidhy Srinivas, Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics B.S., Minor in Global Health (Class of 2024)

“My transition from a 35-person high school classroom to a 350-capacity lecture hall had felt really overwhelming. But when the UAs told me they had felt the same, and gave me advice about the lessons they had learned, I was able to navigate college while recovering from a cancer diagnosis. Now as a UA, I pay it forward to help other students believe in their abilities, regardless of their background, in chemistry or in life. It is my honor to have the opportunity to interact with students from all over the world – sometimes I feel like I learn more from students than they do from me! I am very grateful for the UA program – I’ve found so much joy and fulfillment from teaching that I now want to continue to do so in whichever future career path I take.” Vivek Chotai, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology (Class of 2025)

“When I took Chem 14B with Dr. Lavelle, the UA sessions were extremely helpful for both understanding the concepts and improving my problem-solving skills. This motivated me to join the UA program and help other students learn chemistry, which is usually challenging initially. As a first-year UA, it was especially inspiring to see students understanding the chemistry concepts in chemistry better and starting to be able to tackle chemistry problems on their own. I was also very glad to see my knowledge is also helping others better learn and adapt to their first quarters in college. I am very grateful that Dr. Lavelle established the UA Peer Learning Program for his Chem 14A and 14B classes, which is very helpful in helping students succeed in the class.” Yixin (Isabella) Wu, Neuroscience (Class of 2026)  

About Dr. Laurence Lavelle

Dr. Laurence Lavelle

Born in Ireland, Lavelle completed his B.Sc. (Chemistry major, and Microbiology and Physical Oceanography minors), B.Sc. (Honors, Chemistry), and M.Sc. (Distinction, Physical Chemistry) at the University of Cape Town (UCT).  After graduating from UCT he accepted a faculty position in the Chemistry Department at the University of The Witwatersrand (WITS), South Africa. He then moved to the United States and he received an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics from Princeton University. After one year as a post-doctorate at UCLA’s Molecular Biology Institute he joined the faculty in the UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry. 

Lavelle has received many awards, including the University Distinguished Teaching Award, UCLA’s highest teaching award.  Lavelle has received education Mini-Grant Awards every year since 2010 from UCLA’s Office of Instructional Development.  Lavelle also received UCLA NSF Professional Development Awards yearly 2007-2022, Sigma Pi’s Professor of Empowerment Award 2016, elected a Mortar Board Honorary Member 2019 for his distinguished contributions towards the goals of scholarship, leadership and service over the years teaching at UCLA, and an Online Teaching & Learning Workshop Award 2022.