Teacher’s Appreciation Week: Featuring Mother Nature


Courtesy of Mariam Rizkalla

Mariam Rizkalla, Staff Writer

  In celebration of Teacher’s Appreciation Week at West High, it is important that we take the time to honor and thank our beloved educators who have had a significant, impact on our personal, intellectual, and academic growth. There could not have been a more wonderful opportunity for me to honor the one whose passion emphatically changed my life—Mother Nature, the Biology/Astrobiology Queen, Science Department Co-Chair, Mrs. Nikki Chambers.

  The one who teaches not from a book or a lesson plan, but rather aspires to imprint her mark with a fiery passion shining straight from the heart. The one who devotes her love, precious time, and full attention to her students’ success and personal well-being. The one who is like no other in how she builds and cherishes relationships with her students. I got the honor to interview her this week to get an insight into her acquired experiences and how her extraordinary passion for biology came about. Turns out, it’s more unique than you thought.


Q: How would you describe your high school experience?


A: I was the eldest child in this country so I got to navigate through many things like American high school—my parents were wonderful and very supportive, but this was a different system so they didn’t know how any of it worked; it was kind of up to me to figure it all out. I went from an 8th grade promotion with about 16 kids to a public high school like West, which also had about 2,000 kids. I was smart and I got along great with my teachers, but socially, I really struggled. It was a scary place to be, especially because I was a year younger than everyone else since I had skipped a grade. I was happy to be done. This, and a number of other things, pretty much drove what I decided to do for college.


Q: Did you begin your college education at UCLA or did the journey start somewhere else?


A: After high school, everyone was pretty much going to USC and UCLA but I decided to be a 16-year-old rebel and go to Chicago. I was very intimidated by the idea of having to navigate through college all by myself, but I did it anyway. Later, I came back home, sort of with my tail between my legs, and I said that I was going to finish up at UCLA, which I’m very glad I had done because I loved my time here!


Q: What inspired your interest in astrobiology?


A: Astrobiology is the scientific discipline that seeks to answer the question: Is there life elsewhere in the universe, and what does that mean to us on Earth? It is a very cutting-edge discipline and it changes sometimes daily, sometimes inconveniently the day before I teach a lesson, it’s very exciting to me!


Q: Has biology been your favorite subject growing up? Who encouraged you to pursue it?


A: My school was very focused on liberal and language arts. My dad was a physicist, but my mother made it very clear on the outside that young ladies don’t study science except, interestingly enough, medicine.

  I started my high school career with this idea that boys do math and science, and girls do english and fine arts. I was going to be a journalist! I took my honors english classes and I took two different foreign languages, putting off science till my junior year.  At the end of high school, I thought I was going to go to med school, but I had a lot of catching up to do. Senior year, I did our equivalent of AP Bio and physics. At that point, two years of bio, chem, and physics was pretty standard for starting pre-med, so I was caught up.


Q: What was your driving ambition growing up?


A: Being the best person I can possibly be. I always say that you don’t have to be the best, as long as you always strive to be the best possible version of yourself because that’s what truly matters.


Q: What is your most inspirational quote?


A: “Life is best when you live deeply and look up.” Dr. Mae Jemison, physician, engineer, NASA astronaut.


Q: What would you say is the most rewarding part of teaching?


A: Teaching isn’t just my job it’s my passion. I love seeing the sparkle in their eyes when the lights go on— that’s the best. I want my students to be science-literate citizens because we have far too little of that in our world. You guys are somebody’s treasure that we are gifted to spend an hour with every day. If you come out of my class believing that you can be the best you can be, and maybe remembering to look up and wonder every once in a while, then I’ve done a pretty good job.


Q: Finally, what is the most valuable piece of advice you have acquired through the years that you would give to a current high school student?


A: Don’t be mediocre. I don’t get how some people can be so strategically average; they’re closing so many doors on themselves. The best experiences in my life, I earned by being the best I could be. So, don’t be mediocre!