As an earth system science researcher, Tiho Kostadinov, ’02, spends a lot of his time testing theories: Do conifers respond to changes in snowfall? How can ocean ecology and biogenic carbon be assessed with ocean color satellites? How do variations in the earth’s orbit affect climate?
His latest hypothesis poses a different kind of question. Is it possible to be both an active researcher and a dedicated teacher?
If you had asked him a few years ago, he would have said probably not. “I always see, especially in research institutions, the pressure is to be a good researcher,” he says. “It attracts people who want to focus on research and publications and big grants. They teach, but their focus is not on teaching.
“I’ve always wondered, would it be better to leave these people alone to do their research and have people who are more dedicated and love teaching do the teaching?”
At the conclusion of a two-year environmental postdoctoral fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and run by the Associated Colleges of the South, he's shifted course. As a research fellow, he studied forest ecology and snow interaction in Oregon with Todd Lookingbill, assistant professor of geography, the environment and biology.
But the grant also demands something a little different — that researchers spend part of their time teaching in a liberal arts setting. For Kostadinov that meant co-teaching along with University faculty and instructing two courses on his own.
“The classical post-doc is just doing research in a bigger university with bigger labs,” he says. “There are less interactions with students, especially undergrad students. So in this respect, the grant is very unique.”
The first day of class was particularly interesting as, just a few years before, he would have been sitting in the seats as a biology student. Now at the front of the room, he's still learning — this time that research and teaching can, in fact, go hand in hand.
“I can see now, when you’re doing research and you’re staying at the forefront of the science, it enhances your teaching all the time,” Kostadinov says. “In climate change, especially, things happen very fast and new research comes out monthly or even daily. If I’m not following the updates, coursework that I created a few years ago is already outdated.”
Teaching also reinvigorates his role as a researcher. Student researchers come to the lab with their own perspectives and a fresh energy. Even a simple question from a student in class can make him step back and re-think his own assumptions.
“The best questions, many times, come from people who are not in the same field,” he says. “If you are in the field, you inadvertently take some things for granted and don’t ask about them.”
While his experiment balancing teaching and research has come to an end, Kostadinov isn’t going anywhere just yet. The geography department is hosting him as he returns to research full time under a three-year NASA Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry Program grant. He will be using ocean color satellite data to investigate ocean biogeography. It’s the type of grant-funded position, he says, that is more commonly found at large research institutions, rather than liberal arts universities.
“It’s an eternal question for a researcher in academia, defining the right mix of teaching and research,” he says. “I’m still assessing what the right mix for me is, but a place like Richmond is a great way to have both.”