Rani Vajravelu

Associate Lecturer, Biology Department, College of Sciences 2017 Women's History Month

What is your current job title and responsibilities?
I am an Associate Lecturer in the Biology department, College of Sciences. My current responsibilities include teaching four different plant science courses and a GEP course for non-majors. Also, I am serving as the GEP assessment coordinator for the non-major Biological Principles course.

What is your history at UCF and before UCF?
My association with UCF began in 1993 as a student in late Dr. Whittier’s Local Flora course, followed by Wild Flowers by Dr. Taylor. Pretty soon, I found myself volunteering at the FTU herbarium (UCF) where I curated and identified the botanical collections.

Later, with a courtesy appointment as the Faculty Research Associate in the UCF Biology department, I collaborated in various projects including the Flora of Florida with the University of South Florida, UF herbarium, and also in an international project, Flora Malesiana.

During this time, I obtained grants from the National Geographic Society and The Explorer’s Club to travel to the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, U.K., a two-month botanical exploration in SE Asia, and in the Rijksherbarium, Leiden, The Netherlands.

I joined the Biology department, UCF as an adjunct Assistant Professor in 1994. This position, over the years, has led to the current position at UCF.

Before UCF, I had volunteered in The Florida Native Plant Society, conducted plant identification workshops, and did scientific illustrations for plant books published by local authors.

What is your academic background?
I have a Ph.D. in Botany with a specialization in Plant Taxonomy. I had the honor of having a world renowned Plant Taxonomist, Rev. Dr. Matthew, as my thesis advisor.  My B.S. and M.S. degrees were from the Holy Cross College, and Ph.D. from St. Joseph’s College, both were affiliated to the Madras University, India. I am proud to note that my Ph.D. thesis was given the highest rating “Highly Commendable” and one of the evaluators was Dr. Dan Nicholson from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

 What is your favorite UCF memory?
The Christmas party 2013 in our Biology department. We have the tradition of white elephant gift exchange. Dr. Walter Taylor wanted my gift and I was running away from him and he ended up chasing after me, until everyone burst in to laughter.

If you could change one thing at UCF, what would it be?
If I could change one thing it would be replacing our current biology building to a brand new facility with our own multimedia classrooms and large lab spaces.

What is one piece of advice you would like to share with your colleagues?
Most of the colleagues I know already work very hard at their jobs. If I have to say something to them it would be “keep up the good work.” Since the question asks about a piece of advice, I would like to say something I read somewhere: “work hard, be kind.”

If UCF was going to name something in your honor, what would you like it to be and why?
I would like it to be a flower garden with plants of botanical interest. I imagine the garden being filled with all kinds of local and exotic species with flowers of vibrant colors.

It would remain as a place for anyone’s access, especially for UCF faculty and staff, to read, meditate, or to simply walk through the flower path. This would be a great way to connect with the wonders of the Mother Nature.

 If you could have lunch with anyone at UCF (who you do not normally eat lunch with), who would you choose and why?
Ideally, I would like to have lunch with any colleague who is also involved in large class teaching in our campus. Besides that, it has been my long time desire to learn more about Anthropology, Chemistry and History. Some of my courses would benefit from the knowledge I hope to gain from talking to the experts from these fields. So, having a chance to eat lunch with someone from these departments who also teaches large size classes would be my choice.

Who at UCF would you like to thank for your success?
My success in UCF truly depends on a lot of people.  The late Dr. Henry Whittier who valued my botanical expertise; late Dr. Vickers who hired me; the subsequent chairs of the Biology department, Drs. Kuhn, Hinkle, von Kalm and Worthy who supported my academic creativity; long time colleagues Pam Thomas and Frank Logiudice who showed what kindness really means; all of my colleagues, though we don’t share the same subject matter, who offer a friendly smile and chit chat on the hallways; Dr. Seidel, the former CAS Dean, and Dr. Haven Sweet for supporting my work ethics, and Mr. Ron Slaughter from IR who helped me in the beginning days of multimedia classrooms at UCF. Finally, I thank my husband Dr. KV, in the math department for providing unconditional support and, also for setting a great example both in personal and professional life.

Name and describe a teacher or researcher from your past who truly inspired you and why.
Right from the elementary school teacher Ms. Pattu, and all the way to my Ph.D. advisor late Dr. Matthew, I was shaped and molded by many teachers in every stage of my academic life. It is interesting to note that all those who inspired me came with a reputation for being strict with the grade and were widely acclaimed for a high standard of instruction. Though it was very challenging to get through their courses, I am thankful for the wealth of knowledge they provided. Their perseverance and empathy for the humanities will continue to inspire me.

What undergraduate or graduate class/program/experience inspired you the most and why?
It was summer 2009; I was involved in an interdisciplinary project, Interactive India: Harmony between Plants & People, with the School of Visual Arts and Design. As a team, Professor Phil Peters and I, along with four of his graduate students traveled to India to webcast field-based live lectures to a large group of virtual audience coming from diverse academic backgrounds and locations.
As the “content expert and on-line host” I was in charge of preparing and delivering the field-based lectures. The team chose Delhi and Rishikesh where I had never travelled before nor did I talk their local language. The idea of lecturing on live plants from the field, right under the Himalayan foothills, was exciting. But little did I know about the unexpected hassles with technology, considering the fact that the lectures were 90-minute each in one take. To add to the misery, some of our team members fell sick. Without any prior experience in the media field, I found myself fulfilling many different roles that were way beyond my comfort zone. There were some instances when I wished that I would just instantly disappear from the live camera because the lectures did not proceed as I had planned.
After we returned back from completing the project, I had a chance to play the unedited webcasts at a leisurely time. I noticed that I had handled the rough spots that made the live lectures seamless. The comments from the audience made me feel good about myself and the passion I had for the subject.
Even today, it brings me smiles when I remember my excitement over finding a rare medicinal plant even though I had been standing in the open field for the last hour or so, with a burning temperature of 1150 F around!

What is your favorite restaurant or food?
I am a soup and salad kind of person. I tend to prefer places where I can choose from a variety of garden vegetable based menu. That narrows it down to Panera, First Watch and Olive garden that are close by. For an elaborate dinner I’d prefer Seasons 52.

 What is your favorite movie, book or music?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is one of my all-time favorite books.  The author mentions that she heard about HeLa cells in her non-major biology course and her quest to learn more resulted in writing a book. It made me realize what a responsible job it is to teach biology to young minds.

What is your favorite vacation destination?
My first preference would be my back yard in my humble home where I would share some laughter and good food with my family and friends. If vacation means going out of the familiar place, then a trip to The Netherlands to see the Tulip Festival sounds good.

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