Meet the members – 5 questions with Fengshan Ma

Welcome back to “Meet the members”. With around 600 union members it’s a safe bet to say that we sure don’t all know one another, and each member certainly doesn’t know what all of the members of WLUSA do here at Laurier. This feature aims to alleviate that. It aims to shine the spotlight on one of our wonderful members to give everyone a chance to get to know them and to give them a chance to talk about the role that they play in the university. Let’s meet the next “Meet the members” interviewee, Fengshan Ma of the Biology department where he is a Laboratory Coordinator:

Fengshan Ma

So what exactly does the role of Lab Coordinator in the Biology department entail?

In the Department of Biology, I am one of the three lab coordinators who are responsible for planning, implementing and overseeing the lab/tutorial components of several dozens of undergraduate courses. My area covers courses in the disciplines of plant biology, ecology, evolution, and biodiversity. In consultation with the course instructors involved, I ensure that the lab and tutorial exercises support the learning objectives of the respective courses. One of my critical routines is to train and supervise graduate teaching assistants (TAs) and undergraduate instructional assistants (IAs) for the successful delivery of these exercises. I also assist students experiencing difficulties with course materials. Providing recommendations for accommodating students registered with the Accessible Learning Centre has become an increasingly important commitment.

And what’s one thing you really want everyone at Laurier to know about what you do in your job?

We were very happy with the recent completion of the renovation of a number of lab and tutorial teaching spaces, all on the third floor of the Science Building on the Waterloo campus. This is accompanied by the addition of numerous new instruments, including microscopes and imaging systems. We have been upgraded, and I’d like to share the good news with everyone on all Laurier campuses! I have long advocated for the importance of hands-on training in biological education, and now I feel that with these exciting improvements we are in a much better position in preparing our students for their career development in the future.

I know you have been at Laurier for quite a number of years now, have you moved around within Laurier?

I have worked in my current capacity as a lab coordinator for almost ten years. This is the only position I have ever held over this period. Before this job, I spent three terms over a period of three years as a CAS member for a botany course administered by Distance Education. For those who are not familiar with this course category, it has been re-modelled into Online Learning.

So, in all of that time, what’s been your favourite thing about working at Laurier?

My favourite thing about working at Laurier is the wonderful relationship among the staff members in the department. My colleagues are all very friendly to me, and I try not to hurt them – at least. We celebrate birthdays a few times each year, and I tend to use these events to keep track of the number of cakes I have consumed so far.

And are you active in the Laurier Community outside of your role, if so how?

Yes, I do something outside of my role, although this may not really match to the definition of the word “active”. Among the few activities I participated, I functioned as an assistant marshal for a number of convocations. I love to see how students celebrate their achievements with family and friends. At those moments, I tried to make myself feel more involved by thinking “I wish I had contributed to these smiles, laughter and hugs…” Yet, what I enjoyed the most is that this is probably one of the very few occasions when people are whole-heartedly willing to follow my instructions – “This way, please!”

Biology lab equipment
Biology Lab by Martin Lopez, stock photo via PXhere

If you were left to your own devices for 24 hours, what would you spend that time doing?

I’d spend that time in botanic gardens taking pictures of plants. The intricate beauty of flowers is always appealing to me. I’ll stop beside them for long minutes studying – and appreciating – their structure as revealed under various lighting conditions over time and add them to my collection by repeats of shutter clicks. I may describe this activity as “dynamic photography of flower morphology”. Each flower has a story of its own and I want to walk into it with my camera lens. I use some of the flower pictures in my teaching so that I have opportunities to share slices of my experience with others. In the core of my heart, I am a botanist. And what I have been dreaming hard is a better camera.

And just for fun, what’s the coolest thing you’ve got in your workspace (and what makes it cool to you)?

The microscope imaging systems. There is nothing more soothing than mingling through the microscopic world of plant anatomy captured on them. I have always wondered why such intricate construction of plant cells and tissues are the way they are. In addition to the richness of scientific breakthroughs achieved from cutting-edge technologies, I have found that imagination can be a helpful strategy to ponder on this question as I attempt to establish a connection to – or even understand – the unknowns. Sometimes I’m willing to share it with my TAs/IAs and students.

One last question then, what’s been your most interesting experience at Laurier so far? Why did you find it interesting?

Pardon me, but I’ll say a few more words for this question. In the labs of BI266 and BI368 (both being botany courses), students need to prepare microscopic samples using a technique called “hand sectioning”. To do this, each student holds a plant specimen (be it a root, stem or leaf) in one hand and a razor blade in the other. When the razor blade is run through the specimen repeatedly, slices are expected to be obtained. This sounds fairly simple, doesn’t it? The problem is, for a meaningful microscopic observation, the slices have to be cross sections each with ideally a thickness of no more than 20 micrometres. These requirements help ensure that the internal structure of the specimen is visualized in its desired organization under sufficient illumination. Remember, 1 micrometre is 1 thousandth of 1 millimetre. So, it can be a bit challenging for many students and it does take some practice. But, relax! Life will be made easy if a proper cutting method is employed. As the lab coordinator, I love to lead a practice session with a demonstration. This is what I’d ask the class to do… “Specimen in one hand, and a razor blade in the other.” “Make sure the specimen is held upright and the razor blade perpendicular to it.” When the definitions of the few words for directions are unequivocally agreed upon, everyone is found doing just fine. “Now you may run your razor blade through your specimen. And repeat the process to produce several sections.” After a couple of minutes, I cast another glance over the class, and only found many have shifted away from the original “upright + parallel” positioning. This is one of my favourite examples to illustrate one’s difficulty in following others’ instructions, no matter how simple they are.

I want to thank Fengshan for being willing to be profiled and teaching us about Laurier’s Biology labs. Please let us know if you have any feedback about this feature, or if you have a particular member that you would like to see profiled!


Lauren has been with Laurier as an employee since August 2014 working at the Library where she is the Copyright and Reserves Supervisor and a member of the Library’s Accessibility Committee and Library Student Advisory Council. Lauren joined CPAC to learn more about WLUSA’s work and services by helping to teach other WLUSA members about them. When she isn’t working her favourite things to do include reading, volunteering (She currently volunteers for The Harry Potter Alliance as their Library Advocacy Researcher), playing video games, and attempting to keep up with her blog.

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