Get to Know: Neena Grover
It goes throughout the region via the Southern Colorado Aids Project. It goes to towns in Tanzania and Kenya. It goes to K-12 schools in Colorado. Any student interested in science outreach can participate in the biosciences club, which goes to a local elementary school and teaches scientific methodology. High school students and teachers learn about RNA research in her laboratory.
Grover, chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department, wants to make science fun and accessible. She uses real-life problems in teaching biochemistry, an approach called problem-based service learning. Students learn nucleic acid biochemistry by reading current literature on AIDS-causing HIV virus and present the science of virus multiplication and drug action to the local community. “These students have enough knowledge to make a difference,” Grover says. “They may not be experts, but they have learned enough to be useful to society. One does not need a Ph.D. to make a difference in the world.”
She also wants her students to know that science is a puzzle and never a finished project; that there are always new directions to pursue. And she practices what she preaches: Eight to 10 students each year conduct RNA-related research in her lab. The students get a lot of one-on-one mentoring in her lab, but they also learn independently, with every student getting his or her own research project. “That way, each student gets ownership of the work,” Grover says.
Although each student has a project, they all deal in some way with how local structures form in RNA. They examine the affect of ions on RNA stability. “We want to determine the rules for forming RNA structures. We study small regions of RNA that are functionally important. We want to improve the accuracy with which we get RNA-based information from genomic databases,” Grover says. The research results are impressive, and every year Grover takes four or five students to national conferences where they present their work. Students also get a chance to publish their work in nationally renowned journals.
When she was in her early 20s, Grover, the daughter of an Indian Air Force officer and a teacher, came to the United States, where she earned a master’s degree in biophysical chemistry from the University of Illinois and a Ph.D. in bioinorganic/biochemistry from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. While there she worked with Dr. Holden Thorp to study drugs that cut DNA for such uses as in chemotherapy.
During her postdoctoral work in the laboratory of renowned RNA researcher Dr. Olke Uhlenbeck at the University of Colorado, Boulder, she began delving into catalytic RNA, one of the hottest fields in biochemistry. “RNA controls everything in the cell. You have ribosomes acting as enzymes, and RNA cutting itself out of a larger RNA, perhaps telling us that RNA is the original molecule of life,” Grover says. Boulder was the center of the “RNA world” during the 1990s. While at Boulder, Grover taught an organic chemistry and biochemistry course to CU nursing students. She found she enjoyed it, and that students responded well to her teaching. She realized then that she wanted to improve science education for all students.
Grover joined the Colorado College faculty in 1999. She teaches organic chemistry and biochemistry, as well as gender and science, and ecofeminism. “I’m not here to open their brains and dump information in,” she says. When she tells her students that what they are learning now may be obsolete in 10 years, they groan and ask, “So why are we learning this?”
“Ah,” she replies, “you should be thinking of the principles, and not memorizing.”
“The liberal arts philosophy fits me,” she says. “I want students to see science from multiple angles; to see science broadly. I want them to think for themselves, think logically and build a foundation.”
Grover is married to Gerald Miller, a professional cellist who plays with the Colorado Springs Philharmonic and with symphonies in Calfornia. They travel to India every few years to visit her two siblings, mother and their nephews and nieces.