During a typical semester, Biology Instructor Cecilia Vigil rides her bike to the Dandini Campus three times a week. It’s a practice that enables Vigil to get outdoors and exercise as much as it is an expression of her love for the physical world, which is a source of personal and professional inspiration.
In fact, this past fall one bike ride inspired one of her latest projects, something she’s calling an Eco-Blitz. It’s based on the idea of a Bio-Blitz, which was started by National Geographic in 1996 that encouraged “citizens of science” to complete an intense survey of a prescribed area over the course of 24-hours. In addition to collecting information about flora and fauna though, Vigil is collaborating with the Environmental Science department to include examination of the area’s soil.
“I got this idea as I was riding my bike that we could do something similar [to a Bio-Blitz] at San Rafael Park because it's relatively small enough to survey within the short time frame characteristic of a blitz,” she said.
Bringing outside influences into the classroom—whether it’s the outdoors, past experiences, books she’s reading or her academic passions—is what Vigil does to engage her students in a subject that she sees as not only essential for a college education, but for our lives as engaged citizens of the world.
“I’m always bringing my interests into the classroom, and my interests are basically anything that has to do with science,” she said. “Having said that, what I like to do is to be outdoors. So, when I teach any ecological or environmental component in any of my classes, I bring that to the table, which includes how we’re all stewards of the planet.”
Vigil brings her passions to her students through various hands-on learning opportunities. One is the creation of a pollinator garden on the Dandini Campus for a program called Bee Campus USA, which involves her Biology 190 students. Another is a hiking class that she will co-lead with Biology Professor Megan Lahti that is open to all TMCC students in Spring 2021.
“I have a garden in the backyard and I keep bees, I love the outdoors and hiking, and so I talk about those things in the classroom,” she said. “And I bring my experiences from former professions to make my classes more applicable to my students... The thing is, I just love science. That’s all I read, and that’s what I do.”
From Veterinary Medicine to Biology
Vigil didn’t begin her professional career with her sights set on academia or biology. However, the unexpected twists and turns of her journey have enabled her to bring rich experiences into the biology classroom. “One thing I tell my students is that education is interesting and your career path will probably change over the years. It’s very rare that you’re going to say that you want to be a doctor and that there’s a clear path to that. However, having that certificate or degree will open up doors and avenues for you,” Vigil said.
Vigil grew up in a border town in Mexico and pursued a career in veterinary medicine, earning a degree in veterinary medicine and animal zoo techniques and a Master’s degree in epidemiology. Eventually, she relocated to the United States and began the process of obtaining certification to practice veterinary medicine in this country when she happened to stop by a party which was also attended by the chair of the biology department of a local university.
“So, I just started teaching part-time and fell in love with academia where I was surrounded by students who were hungry for knowledge,” she said. “It became a career for me. I’ve been teaching for over 20 years now, and I’ve been part-time faculty, full-time faculty, an associate dean, and [even] a director of grants. And now, I’m back to where I really like to be, which is in the classroom with students teaching them something I’m passionate about, getting them excited about this knowledge, and preparing them for their goals and careers.”
In addition to her journey to academia—and to biology—Vigil also worked a series of part-time jobs that gave her valuable perspective on what students experience when they have to find a balance between working and attending college classes. When Vigil first began teaching at TMCC, she taught part-time and worked part-time positions at both Lowe’s and Patagonia. “I have this philosophy in life that there’s this crystal or prism in front of us, and I’m seeing life from this perspective, but in order to understand someone else, I have to see [life] from this other perspective. [Working those part-time jobs] reminded me of what our students are going through to be in the classroom—especially those non-traditional students who often go to community college. It brought me back to earth,” she said.
Although Vigil admits she’s a “pretty hard professor who expects a lot out of students,” she also brings relevant experience and compassion to her classrooms in order to support student success. “I try to explain the reasons why I’m doing these things... and at the end of the day, we have to make sure that students understand that these courses are challenging, but they will prepare you for where you are going,” she said.
Three Ways of Teaching Biology
TMCC’s Biology department is unique in its ability to prepare students with a wide variety of goals through three distinct tracts: biology for non-majors, biology for students pursuing a degree in the allied health fields or public safety, and biology majors. Given her long history of teaching at both the community college and university level, Vigil said she adapts to the learning outcomes of whatever class she’s teaching and how best to convey information to her students.
“If I’m teaching [an introductory course] like Biology 100, my mind goes back to when the student was in middle, high or even elementary school and science was made so difficult that the student developed a fear about taking classes in that subject. So, I try to make the class fun and applicable by focusing on making students scientifically literate, so that when you go to vote or you’re taking care of your body or educating your family, you are using [scientific] concepts,” she said.
However, this is not quite the approach Vigil uses for students looking to pursue degrees and allied health. While she admits a certain degree of sympathy for students who struggle for the top grade to gain admission to these competitive programs, her aim is to marry vigor with passion. “I’m going to help my students to succeed, but I also want them to love how the human body works, so that when they’re practicing medicine they are doing so as a competent professional,” she said.
When teaching biology majors, Vigil focuses on getting students to participate in some form of undergraduate research, which will help bolster their confidence while building their resume—both of which are necessary in the world of science. “No matter what class I’m teaching, I bring my crazy enthusiasm and love for science because it’s contagious,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a student take a biology course just to check it off their requirements, and then they discover that this is what they want to do.”
However, Vigil believes that regardless of their major or future professional goals, students can gain valuable skills from studying biology, which include an appreciation for fact-checking and learning about the world around us. “For example, right now I’m teaching cell respiration and photosynthesis, and I’m teaching them this balance between producers and consumers, and that topic allows me to talk about climate change, and to look at the impact that we as human beings have on our planet.”
Studying Biology at TMCC
While Vigil is fairly new to teaching full-time in the TMCC Biology department, she nonetheless appreciates that she’s allowed a certain degree of creativity for how she teaches her classes. “Yes, my students still have to learn competencies [in the class], but I don’t have to teach them in only one way,” she said. “I’m not a linear [thinker or teacher.] I like to draw from different things, and I’ve been supported in doing that.”
Vigil was instrumental in the Biology department’s acquisition of two Anatomage tables to expand the number of anatomy and physiology classes that TMCC can offer. “We’re lucky we have cadavers, but because we’ve grown so much as a college, the cadaver lab at the Dandini Campus has classes going on all the time. So, I heard about Anatomage tables, which is basically a virtual cadaver—like a life‑size iPad—that projects images of the human body,” she said.
The precise imaging was made possible by extensive MRI scans on three human cadavers to develop the “virtual cadaver” which enables students to add or remove slices to the images on the screen. Students can “slice” away the skin virtually to see the vessels that lie beneath, or “slice” away the vessels to reveal the muscles or bones.
In addition to providing more opportunities for students to receive hands-on experience in the anatomy and physiology classes, she continually creates opportunities for students to get involved in science. “I have one student who has a NASA Grant and we’re doing research on the correlation between the wildfires in California in climate change,” she said. She also encourages and supports students to apply for summer research programs.
In return, many students remain in touch with Vigil, who said these connections are often formed in her classes where her sometimes unconventional approach to making the course content relevant creates long-lasting memories for her students. “It’s kind of cool to be a little component of their successes in their lives. And even if they don’t remember my name, if they remember to fact-check, I did my job and to me, that’s a success,” she said.
For students on the fence about studying biology at TMCC, Vigil said you can’t go wrong with this particular community college. “Because classes are smaller, you’re not just a number to your instructor, but a name,” she said. “And I think as an institution we offer so much support, and it’s from the heart.”
For Vigil, this involves bringing passions into the classroom, which ranges from bikes to bees to hiking to biology, in order to get her students excited about a science that seeks to understand the nature of life.
For more information about studying Biology at TMCC, contact the department at 775-673-8251.