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Fulbright Scholar leads RCC's STEM Division

Ted Thomas | 10/12/2011, 1:21 a.m.

As a girl growing up in Bagdad, one clear message that Tala Khudairi and her five siblings heard repeatedly from their parents was that a good education was very important.  “My upbringing probably led me to the sciences as well as higher education,” she said. Tala was born into a family of scientists and educators. Her father, a retired professor emeritus at Northeastern University, is a botanist. Her mother has a master’s degree in entomology.

Tala explained that as a very young girl, she learned from her father that the main thing he had inherited from his parents was an education. He in turn instilled in his children the value of an education as “the most important and powerful thing” that you can have. “I was really young when I heard that, and I heard it many times.”

Tala arrived in the United States for the first time when she was just 9 months old, the family moved back to Iraq and lived there for four years, leaving again before the start of the Iran-Iraq War. During her time in Iraq, Tala attended elementary school and some of grade eight.

Mixed in with her memories of “a very rigorous education system” are “happy moments with extended family” and going on motor boat rides on the Tigris River.

Math came “very easy” for the young Tala. “My highest grades were always in math,” she said. Because of her math ability, Tala “was encouraged strongly” by her family to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering. She followed that advice and earned a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering and biomedical engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. Tala’s stellar educational credentials also include both a Master of Science in cardiopulmonary sciences and clinical exercise physiology and a Ph.D. from Northeastern University. The title of her doctorial thesis was “Cytoskeletal-Specific Immunoliposomes: A Breakthrough in the Preservation of Ischemic Myocardium.”

Tala was hired as dean of Roxbury Community College’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Division in July 2007. She arrived in the summer, and the first thing she had to do “was get ready for the (fall) semester.” That included hiring adjunct faculty, getting to know the College’s other deans and understanding the College’s mission. One of her biggest challenges “was bringing the labs up to standard. That was urgent and important.” Tala likes to work with the consensus of others. “I build and strategically lead college divisions,” she said. “That’s what I do.”

During her time at the helm of RCC’s STEM Division, Tala has watched it grow in popularity and prestige locally and statewide. “We have gotten many grants,” she noted. There was also a grand opening of the new biotechnology laboratory to which industry members, community residents, representative of four-year colleges and media outlets were invited. RCC’s biotechnology program would later receive two gold level endorsements from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Education Consortium, placing it in the forefront of STEM education in the state.

Tala pointed out that STEM faculty members and the department as a whole have been repeatedly recognized for outstanding work by RCC through its “Gateway Award.”

The STEM Division also offers a “Speaker’s Series” featuring distinguished guests recruited Tala and by faculty members in the STEM Division.

Perhaps one of Tala’s proudest academic and professional moments came when she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship. “I always like to challenge myself and learn new things,” she said, explaining what motivated her to apply for a Fulbright. “I’m the forever student,” she added.

Tala’s Fulbright covered a period of time beginning in the summer of 2010 and ending in the summer of 2011. Tala’s Fulbright allowed her to spend time at the University of Jordan in Amman, Jordan where she joined the Faculty of Pharmacy as a Visiting Professor. Her research project was “Teaching and Learning of STEM Programs.”

Tala found her students in Jordan to be delightful and eager to learn. Back at Roxbury Community College, Tala and her faculty members continue to improve on the College’s already excellent STEM program.