How Sabia Abidi is preparing students for the real world

Bioengineering lecturer helps seniors practice proposals, oral communication skills.

Sabia Abidi

Sabia Abidi remembers the day she sat in her high school library reading a journal article about protein structures and how membranes pass instructions to cells. “I had always been strong in math and science and was fascinated by how cells talk to each other. The chance to learn more about how a cell decides its destiny and its life influences led me to major in bioengineering,” she said.

“The field of tissue engineering was just taking off; I was fascinated with stem cells and how time-sensitive environmental cues dictated a cell’s fate. A Bachelor’s and Ph.D. in bioengineering seemed the next steps toward satisfying my curiosity, and I took on a project in stem cell differentiation, specifically hematopoiesis and T cells.”

After completing her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, her curiosity led to further research with postdoctoral appointments at the New York University School of Medicine and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Abidi said, “My Ph.D. research in hematopoiesis was very translational which was very exciting. We were combining engineering and biology to influence the production of T cells and hematopoietic stem cells. Can we produce those cells on demand? Can we prompt the creation of a large amount of T cells for people who don’t have enough of them due to some lifelong disease?”

Pursuing her research and sharing the results with colleagues were equally important to Abidi, who teaches bioengineering at Rice University. She infuses engineering communication components in many of her courses to impress upon her students the importance of explaining their work to both specific and broad audiences.

“During my undergraduate and graduate education, I learned to communicate my findings and to talk about bioengineering topics in a range of settings: lab meetings, conference presentations, and as a teaching assistant. Any opportunity to present my work to an outside audience through the written or oral media was pivotal. Choosing to be a teacher and learning the skills that educators use to communicate about their material forced me to improve my presentation skills as well.”

When she started teaching at Rice, Abidi met Tracy Volz, director of the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication Program. Volz coaches senior bioengineering students on their capstone presentations, posters, and demos in BIOE 451 and 452. Abidi discovered these same seniors had already completed similar oral communication coaching experiences in other BIOE courses. Communication activities like these help the Rice students prepare for the industry’s exhaustive documentation requirements.

“In the School of Engineering, the Capstone Senior Design Course for Bioengineering requires a fair amount of documentation,” said Abidi. “We want this Capstone experience to prepare them for the real world. During the year-long experience, our students must supply documentation for their senior design projects cycle by cycle. But they also practice writing proposals, reviewing papers, and so on in their other BIOE courses. We built that into our curriculum so the written communication skills in our department are very strong.

“I have also been very impressed with their oral communication skills. The curriculum gives them multiple opportunities to hone these skills in a safe class setting, multiple opportunities to work with experts like Dr. Volz, and all of this shows.”

The cross-disciplinary nature of bioengineering requires students to speak to different audiences; they cannot focus on scientists and leave engineers out of the loop or vice versa. Abidi credits Volz for coaching students with candor. For example, students may hear feedback like, “Those slides don’t work,” but the critiques are not directed at the student’s research or findings. Volz focuses only on how the student is conveying their message. She may even ask what they are trying to communicate and help them brainstorm a better approach.

Abidi said, “I am blown away by our students’ skills. The engineering communication resources woven into the curriculum may be why our students do so very well in competitions. They have this ability to take whatever they are working on and condense it into what is important.”

In addition to the senior capstone course she looks forward to each semester, Abidi also teaches Physiology to sophomores and a fun laboratory course that teaches bioengineers the process of troubleshooting broken clinical equipment (BIOE 449). 

“BIOE 449 is a small class that meets a lab requirement in our curriculum,” she said. “The equipment we use in the classroom gives students the ability to learn what is inside as well as the most common failure modes. My goal is for the students to walk away not being afraid of equipment issues. If their lab refrigerator isn’t working, calling a tech is always an option. But my hope is that they can do some troubleshooting themselves - thinking about systems, how they work, how they usually fail, and how they might be fixed.”

Her passion for teaching BIOE students is obvious, but Abidi had not considered a career dedicated to teaching until she had completed almost nine years of postdoctoral research. When someone suggested she consider a career as a BIOE lecturer, Abidi was initially reluctant. However, the seed was planted and she began to realize a teacher could touch lives in a very different way than she would with her research. 

“As a teacher, part of my job will always be to learn new things and communicate them. I love the challenge of taking complex material and explaining it to different students. Frankly, I find it fun,” said Abidi.

“Then there is the wonder of watching students evolve as their knowledge grows. I really enjoy the BIOE curriculum at Rice, as well as introducing these very cool concepts and why they matter. The students in my courses inspire me, and I am always wondering how can I package this information so it is fun and engaging and sticks with them, and yet push them and challenge them with problems they can’t solve immediately and will have to think about for a bit.”

This article was originally published for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.