With kindness and calm, biologist Li Tao adapts classes and labs to online format

“I treat the students like family and each time they make progress, I feel like a proud parent,” says biologist Li Tao about the transition to online teaching.

By Emily Burkhart.

Li Tao in lab with students on screen.
Li Tao teaches a lab class remotely. Courtesy photo.

For University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo biology professor Li Tao, the switch to online education is challenging, but he keeps an even keel thanks to students, faculty, and administrative cooperation amidst the shifting demands of the new learning format.

“As a professor, my duty has never changed as my utmost priority is supporting the students’ success,” he says.

Tao’s kind, calm, and collected approach reassures his upper-division cell biology students that they will not be given a source of added stress. His commitment to seeing things from student perspectives has garnered praise during this time of uncertainty. In an anonymous survey submitted last spring, students wrote they were impressed with the biologist’s organizational skills.

He “uploaded recorded lectures in a timely fashion,” writes one student about Tao’s cell biology class. “He would make sure his lectures were uploaded before the times our class would actually meet. This really helped to maintain the same study schedule as I had with face to face courses.”

Though the biologist’s students attribute the smooth transition to Tao’s methodical style, he believes it’s because “students were very cooperative and understanding of the current pandemic situation” as well as the united efforts of the biology department.

“Transitioning these courses online has not been easy,” says Tao, “but I would say that it has been successful because we have a great faculty team in the biology department. We exchange our ideas and methods through frequent departmental Zoom meetings and emails to find the best way for a course to be taught.”

Tao has made the in-person lab components of his courses, where students can come into his research lab at UH Hilo and work on special projects, available this semester on a voluntary basis. Necessary accommodations are also made for anyone off-island to successfully learn the concepts online.

Despite the success Tao is having, he acknowledges that students are facing new challenges learning in an off-campus environment. Before he uploads any lectures, he creates multiple formats of a lecture and then puts on his student hat to ask, “would [this] be understandable from a student’s perspective?” to find the most suitable option.

Li Tao
Li Tao in his lab. Courtesy photo.

The biologist, whose research focuses on cell division mechanisms, an integral component of cancer research, draws on his career in academia in formulating his approach to online teaching. He received his doctor of philosophy in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of California at Davis after coming to the United States in 2001. Before joining the UH Hilo campus in 2014, he conducted postdoctoral research at UC Davis and worked as a project scientist at UC Santa Cruz. He was promoted to associate professor last year and continues to deliver his sought-after biology courses, adapting well to the new needs of his students.

“Since everything is online, students can get easily distracted, compared to an in-person class,” he notices. To complement the intricacies and complex details of cell biology course material, he draws on current events to engage students in his lectures, striving to meet students where they are. “One of my strengths as a teacher is my ability to sum things up using simple analogies and making them easier to remember.”

This semester, which Tao had originally intended to take as a sabbatical to conduct collaborative research and apply for grants, has brought its biggest challenge in the form of finding balance.

“It’s been quite busy and challenging as I have to teach and perform my own research at the same time. I have to juggle between mentoring students and postdocs, performing collaborative research with other professors, applying for grants, and of course teaching my classes,” he says.

Despite this, Tao has continued to put students first. To combat the new stress he has seen spike in students, he strives to always “put the student’s wellbeing as my top priority and make sure to give out clear instructions and expectations, assuring them that they will succeed in my classes under my guidance and mentoring.”

One way of accomplishing this has been his personal rule of responding to student requests by initiating communication, usually via a Zoom call, within 30 minutes. “I always try to look from their angle in order to understand their situation.”

Tao understands that everyone is in this pandemic together and that interdependence at the university makes the campus community stronger. He says playing important roles creating this supportive environment are the college dean, department chair, the university disability center, and the university’s CARES program (a federal program—the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act—established in response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States).

Tao notes this multi-pronged support system is put in place “to make sure that any student with special needs can get immediate attention.”

“I treat the students like family and each time they make progress, I feel like a proud parent,” he says.

Though Tao is juggling many commitments this semester, his exemplary leadership has earned him recognition from his students because of his genuine concern and care for their development as biologists and as people.


Story by Emily Burkhart, a senior double majoring in English, and Gender and Women’s Studies, at UH Hilo.