‘Dr. Sashi’ has mastered the art of teaching science

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 8, 2014

Dr. Sashi Sabaratnam said she was attracted to Livingstone College because of its size, location and its Christian values.
That was 27 years ago and Sabaratnam — affectionately called Dr. Sashi by students, faculty and staff — still teaches at the institution.
“Livingstone has a Christian atmosphere with friendly colleagues,” Sabaratnam said. “I also enjoy the one-on-one relationship with the students.”
Apparently, the students enjoy working with her.
Ezra Mutai, valedictorian of Livingstone College’s 2012 graduating class, recently wrote a letter of recommendation for Sabaratnam for a teaching award. She and Mutai, who graduated from Alabama A&M University on May 2 with a master’s degree in food science, have kept in close touch since he left Livingstone.
“I have known Dr. Sashi for five years as my college professor, advisor and mentor during my undergraduate studies at Livingstone College,” he wrote. “She is an excellent educator, intelligent and a competent professional who is truly deserving of this award.”
Mutai, who has a job interview next week at a bio-tech company in Maryland, first met Sashi when he took botany under her as a sophomore.
“I was immediately captivated by her intellect and professionalism,” Mutai says in the letter. “Her outstanding teaching methodology, passion and commitment to her work and the lives of her students are what make Dr. Sabaratnam exceptional. She always had a way of reaching out and connecting with her students at their different levels of needs. … Dr. Sabaratnam never ceases to arouse critical thinking in her students. She is a well-rounded individual, knowledgeable and dependable.”
Sabaratnam said she appreciates Mutai’s kind words and over the years has been impressed with him and many other Livingstone students, including Judith Lawrence, Earic Bonner and Annakay Edwards, a May 3 graduate who plans to attend medical school.
She considers learning a lifelong process and approaches her classes under that philosophy.
“Science requires teaching methods that must excite students,” Sabaratnam said. “Students must be engaged in learning, and I’ve found that a simple approach in teaching biology concepts works. Repetition is a must in the learning process.”
A native of the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, Sabaratnam has a bachelor’s degree in botany, with a minor in chemistry, from the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, a master’s degree in crop science from the Post Graduate Institute of Agriculture at the same institution and a Ph.D. in botany and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland.
Before joining the staff at Livingstone, she was a teaching assistant at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Sabaratnam said she enjoys being a college professor because “every day is a new day with a chance to make a positive impact in a student’s life.”
Besides teaching, she enjoys cooking, gardening and travel — which she’s managed to incorporate into her profession. Sabaratnam advises an ecology club on campus in collaboration with the Ecology Society of America. This collaboration has benefited Livingstone College tremendously because Livingstone graduates now have jobs in ecology and environmental sciences as a result of research training, participation in leadership meetings and an annual conference sponsored by the Ecology Society.
Sabaratnam has also explored starting a cooking club at Livingstone. Suffice it to say her work hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Dr. Sashi is a dedicated and hard-working faculty member,” said Dr. Selma Burrell, dean/division chair of the Department of Math and Science. “She is very much student-oriented and works hard to ensure students obtain internships or summer experiences in their majors.”
Sabaratnam invites guest lecturers with expertise in health sciences, ecology and environmental sciences to Livingstone to expose students to career options and graduate schools. And she has collaborated with the Savannah River Site Environmental Research Station, a nuclear reservation in South Carolina on whose board she sits, to obtain summer internships for Livingstone students.
Sabaratnam, a master gardener and board member of the Salisbury Greenway Committee, also shares her love for the environment with students by taking them on field trips to the Livingstone farm and to community gardens.
“Most of the students go reluctantly but return expressing a newfound appreciation for nature and all of its wonders,” Burrell said, adding they aren’t the only ones to benefit from Sabaratnam’s love of nature.
“She blesses her colleagues with plants, fruits and vegetables, most of them homegrown, to make sure we appreciate nature as well,” Burrell said. “Dr. Sashi has a delightful sense of humor and is also an outstanding cook. When she’s not teaching us about plants, she’s either telling us about some new dish she’s cooked or sharing one with us.”
Sabaratnam is married to Rabe Sabaratnam, who has a law degree from a Sri Lanka institution and a master’s degree in business administration from a U.S. school. They have two grown sons.
She said she had no idea when she joined Livingstone’s faculty in 1987 that she would work there so long but is glad to be part of an institution where students are valued.
“I like the way Dr. Jenkins and Dr. Vickers are committed to Livingstone students and the welfare of Livingstone,” Sabaratnam said, referring to Livingstone President Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins Sr., and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Lelia Vickers.
Sabaratnam said many of her colleagues — as well as students — have helped make her time at Livingstone enjoyable, including Dr. Yen-Wan Hung, who taught chemistry at the school, Dr. Roshan Attrey, who taught English, and Sal Alfieri, who is still a member of the faculty and teaches physical education. Those are just a few of the professors she says have been most instrumental to her during her career.
As for when she’ll retire from teaching so she can spend all of the time she wants in the kitchen or in the garden?
“God directs my path,” Sabaratnam said.