Assistant prof digs into teaching, research

By Josh Albrecht

It was 10 p.m. on Jan. 5 when Melissa Lenczewski rolled into town to start her career as an NIU assistant geology professor.

Now, six weeks later, the rookie professor is beginning to find a groove after her start in the middle of the academic year. And despite her attempts to organize everything, including her lab filled with numerous boxes, she still feels like she is behind schedule.

“I am still waiting for everything to come in and trying to get settled,” Lenczewski said. “But I really like it. The department is wonderful and extremely supportive of what I want to do.”

Lenczewski is one of the few faculty members who starts in the middle of the academic year. Usually, new faculty members start at the beginning of the fall semester and attend an orientation similar to the one new students go through.

Lenczewski, who received her bachelor’s degree in microbiology and her master’s in soil science from the University of Arizona, got her first real taste of

geology when she worked with geologists for a month in Canada and then again on a trip to Denmark.

Through those trips, she met Larry McKay, a geology professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and she was on her way to receiving her doctorate in geology at Knoxville.

“I fell in love with it,” she said. “I am bringing my two loves together: micro-biology and geology.”

Now, fresh from receiving her doctorate from the same school that brought NIU President John Peters, Lenczewski is getting her first crack at teaching, as she manages a Geology 105 class.

With a few weeks already completed, Lenczewski said she is trying to adjust her teaching style so that she meshes with the students better.

“I saw what worked and didn’t work, and what they find interesting,” she said. “It’s been a learning experience.”

Lenczewski added that she tries to use group work whenever possible to help break up the monotony of lectures. She also has quickly learned about DeKalb’s water problems and plans on doing a special lecture on it for her class.

Lenczewski is not only happy that she gets to teach but that she will complete research projects as well.

“Teaching is 50 percent of your job, the other half of your life is doing research,” she said. “What you see in class had to come from somewhere. The work that I am doing is adding to that knowledge.”

Lenczewski added that she enjoys working with graduate students to develop and gain more information on the topics that she is studying. With the help of the graduate students, Lenczewski enjoys helping prepare the next generation of students.

“I wanted a school that had emphasis on teaching and on research,” she said.

She also has found the help from fellow faculty members to be insurmountable.

Assistant geology professor Reed Scherer, who started at NIU a year ago, started working with Lenczewski on a grant proposal. He also already has given Lenczewski a lot of advice on the “nuts and bolts” of NIU.

“She is a pleasure to work with and a great addition to the department,” Scherer said.

He added that the life of a professor seems to come naturally to Lenczewski.

This summer, Lenczewski will examine some environmental concerns in Kankakee, Ill. Her specialty is in how micro-organisms can help cure environment crises such as oil spills by degrading compounds, and she will use this knowledge during her studies in Kankakee.

“I am more an environmentalist than anything,” she said.

As for the future, Lenczewski hopes for an opportunity to explore the campus and to make NIU her home.

“My ultimate goal would be for me to stay here and getting a good-sized program started in microbiology and geology,” she said.