Dr Nirma Samarawickrema is the winner of the 2022 FAOBMB Education Award
Dr Nirma Samarawickrema
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology,
Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Dr Nirma Samarawickrema is a member of academic staff at Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia. She completed her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science at the Australian National University and her PhD in Molecular Parasitology / Biochemistry at the University of Queensland, Australia.
She has extensive experience teaching Biochemistry to undergraduates both in Sri Lanka and Australia. Her students have varied capabilities, expectations and come from diverse backgrounds, transitioning mostly (but not all) from Secondary School to University. She is a skilful educator whose practice has focused on diversity and large classes. She astutely applies transition pedagogy in her teaching and supports and mediates the learning experience of her students through a curriculum that ensures engagement. She leads curriculum design teams to ensure that teaching approaches, assessments, and learning pathways are strongly student-centred.
At Monash University, Nirma teaches Biochemistry to students enrolled in a range of courses, including Bachelor of Medical Science and Doctor of Medicine, Bachelor of Biomedical Science, Bachelor of Science, and Bachelor of Nutritional Science. She has successfully adapted her teaching to accommodate large classes of over 600 students. Nirma’s teaching is highly student-centred. Her curriculum designs and teaching practices focus on building partnerships among students transitioning to university. She purposefully involves students in co-teaching, peer-assessing, peer-reviewing and co-creating learning resources; in all this she deliberately fosters learner agency. Nirma has also implemented efficient and innovative assessment approaches, such as peer partnerships in assessments. Her learning activities and assessments are designed to encourage critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration, and metacognitive and evaluative judgement. Through skilfully building these skills and helping students to make career-connections early in their first-year, she supports her students to succeed and continue their university studies beyond their first year. In addition, Nirma also teaches and assesses students using case studies, making conceptually difficult information contextualised and, therefore, more accessible and engaging.
As an extension of her teaching, Nirma also actively mentors early-career academics and fosters their teaching practice.
Nirma’s teaching-intensive role drives her research and scholarship, which is focused on pedagogical investigations to improve student learning. She has skilfully used her disciplinary research on Human papillomavirus and cervical cancer to enrich her classroom curricula and to inspire her students. She has thereby successfully demonstrated the strong nexus between her teaching and her research. Her recent research was on peer assessment and the benefits of peer partnerships in assessments. This research identified the need to design assessment tasks that build graduate attributes – the critical skills students must develop while at university. This work is ongoing. Her research in case-based learning has demonstrated that the approach promotes deep learning and engagement. Since Nirma’s research is focused on her practice, the findings have always fed back into improving her teaching.
Currently she is a Co-Director of Education in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, at Monash University, and the Chair of the Education Special Interest Group of the Australian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). Nirma is also a member of the Editorial Committee of The Australian Biochemist, magazine of the ASBMB. In recognition of her extensive contribution to teaching, learning and scholarship, she was made a Fellow of the Monash Education Academy in 2017. Her contributions to learning and teaching were further acknowledged when she was made a Fellow of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia in 2019. In addition, she was judged the winner of the ASBMB Education Award for 2020.