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Andrew Rutenberg, associate professor

A day in the life

Andrew Rutenberg, associate professor

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Teaching a good lecture is satisfying. But the real joy is when a student asks a question that shows they're a step ahead of you.

Mentoring students and modelling bacteria

Andrew Rutenberg, associate professor of physics and biophysics, is the kind of prof who likes to help students progress. For one thing, he'll be teaching a course called Computational Physics starting in fall of 2011. "It’s a required class, so more physics majors will be taking it,” he says.

He sees that as a very good thing. “Many undergrads don’t get any experience with computer programming during their studies. This addition to the curriculum will help change that,” Dr. Rutenberg adds. “We’re combining it with applications in physics, which will give them the opportunity to model systems they might not see otherwise.”

Physics students also have the opportunity to model their professors, in the mentoring program Dr. Rutenberg organizes. “We saw we could be engaging students better,” he explains. “A faculty member meets five or six students once a month to talk about career decisions, how to get the most out of seminars, how to dissect journal articles, and so on. It helps give students a sense of perspective and connection.”

It’s also a good way for students to learn about profs and decide who they’d like as their honours research advisor—or find out which profs are hiring researchers for the summer. “As well, profs get to know which students are bright and dedicated, and what they might bring to research,” Dr. Rutenberg notes.

Dr. Rutenberg hires students in his own labs for the summer. “My research in biological physics is theoretical,” he says. “I study bacteria, building computational models of how they exploit physics to live.”

Bacteria? Yup—E coli, to be precise. “But collaborators work with non-pathogenic strains,” Dr. Rutenberg quickly assures. “You’d find them all over your house.” He mentions that the computational physics course will provide undergrads all of the skills and more needed to create the noisy (random) models used when studying these bacteria.

“During summers, I tend to work with students who have some experience in biology or programming,” he says. “These students can hit the ground running. I enjoy working with them—they’re still learning an incredible amount, and they’re very bright and dedicated.”