Alumnus/postdoc spotlight: Frank Castelli, Ph.D. ’17

Frank Castelli ’05, M.S. ’14, Ph.D. ’17, is a postdoc in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior from Howard Beach, N.Y. He holds a doctorate from Cornell University and his current research at Cornell focuses on discipline-based education in biology.

He is a recipient of a Postdoc Achievement Award as part of Cornell’s celebration of National Postdoc Appreciation Week 2021 for his leadership initiatives surrounding a large introductory biology laboratory course during the shifts from remote to hybrid and in-person instruction, research and actions promoting diversity and inclusion within the department, and taking on an additional leadership role at a national organization.

What is your research area of emphasis?

I am currently the co-instructor for BIOG1500: Investigative Biology Laboratory for which I give interactive lectures and lead student discussions practicing the scientific method, experimental design, and engaging in critical thinking. I also lead pedagogy training courses for a team of graduate student laboratory instructors and a team of undergraduate teaching assistants. I am involved in several areas of education research including how to equitably and inclusively encourage students to turn on their cameras during Zoom classes, the benefits of being a teaching assistant, and teaching critical thinking and experimental design using animal behavior.

What are the broader implications of this research?

One important phenomenon that arose after the emergency switch to remote teaching in response to COVID-19 was students not turning on their cameras during classes held over Zoom. There are benefits lost to both students and teachers for not being able to see faces. Our research suggests that mandating camera use would disproportionately negatively impact students underrepresented in science. By figuring out why students did not turn on their cameras, we developed an inclusive and equitable plan to encourage them to do so, without requiring it. This research has resonated globally.

What does receiving a Postdoc Achievement Award mean to you?

Like most academics I know, I am internally motivated to work hard because I find my job intellectually fulfilling and rewarding. However, it does feel good to receive external recognition for my efforts and I am honored to receive an award.   

What hobbies or activities do you enjoy in your spare time?

I am a long-time fencer and founder of the modern Recreational Fencing Club at Cornell. As the current advisor to the club, I am helping to revive it after inactivity due to the pandemic. Fencing attracts a great diversity of friendly and interesting people. I enjoy sharing my love for the sport by recruiting and training new members. I also love nature and enjoy hiking and taking pictures of small and large organisms in their natural environments.   

Why did you choose Cornell?

In my experience, Cornell has been a place where I have consistently had the opportunity to work with or interact with people who are simultaneously friendly and intellectually stimulating.  

What is next for you?

Discipline-based education research is a fast-growing field and I am excited by the opportunities arising as universities place higher value on improving education through active learning and education research.

Do you have any advice for current graduate students?

At a research-intensive university, graduate students may feel that teaching experience is not worth their time. To these students, I advise that they investigate the many benefits of gaining teaching experience including how it can improve one’s competitiveness for later employment. 

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