Rising Star for Community Service: A Q&A with Alumni Award Winner Dr. Poh Tan

April 29, 2024
Photo Credit: Dr. Poh Tan

Dr. Poh Tan (BSc '02, PhD' 24) was recently honoured with the 2024 SFU Outstanding Alumni Award as a Rising Star for Service to the Community.  

In this Q&A, Poh shares her experiences as a community leader and educator, emphasizing the role of inclusivity and collaboration in her work. 

Dr. Poh Tan with Anne Giardini, former SFU chancellor. Photo Credit: Dr. Poh Tan
Photo Credit: Dr. Poh Tan

Q: What does this recognition mean to you personally and professionally? 

A: Being recognized feels incredibly humbling and gratifying. This recognition validates my efforts and dedication to serving the community through entrepreneurship, stem cell science, and science education.

Reflecting on my life and career, I am reminded of the invaluable support I have received. From my family, who has been my rock, to my mentors who have guided me, and my peers who have collaborated with me, each person has played a crucial role in shaping my path towards this recognition.

Q: As a PhD student, how do you think the Faculty of Education specifically prepared you for your role as a community leader?  

A: The Faculty of Education prepared me by providing a blend of academic rigour, practical experience, and mentorship opportunities. Firstly, the Faculty's curriculum emphasized contemporary educational theories, pedagogical strategies, and leadership within educational settings, which are critical for community leadership. 

In particular, the program I was in, Educational Theory and Practice – Curriculum & Pedagogy, had courses that explored theories from an interdisciplinary lens that encouraged me to explore different research angles, including community collaboration. Mentors like Drs. Heesoon Bai, Ann Chinnery, Stephen Smith, Celeste Snowber, and David Zandvliet guided my unique inquiry into my latest ideas and collaborative approach to the community. 

In addition to faculty, my peers, whom I have the privilege of working with, helped me expand on my current ideas and establish networks and connections that go beyond SFU and into other international communities. 

Q: What impact do you hope your continued research and work in the community will have on educational practices and policies? 

A: My continued research and community work aim to shape and inform educational practices and policies by integrating diverse perspectives, fostering holistic scientific literacy, and promoting culturally responsive pedagogy. Holistic scientific literacy involves understanding science in a way that includes cultural, emotional, and spiritual dimensions, thereby enriching the learning experience. 

By advocating for diverse methods of learning science, such as laboratory work complemented by cultural practices like hula, I aim to inspire educational transformations that prioritize diversity, inclusivity, and the comprehensive development of learners.

Photo Credit: Dr. Poh Tan

Q: You have mentioned the pivotal role of family, mentors, and peers in your journey. Could you share a specific story?

A: My children's impact extends beyond academia; their influence resonates deeply in my commitment to community service. Witnessing their unique perspective, their curiosity and thirst for knowledge, ignited my passion to explore new educational avenues. Their enthusiasm for learning about diverse cultures and traditions highlighted the critical need for inclusivity in STEM education.  

"A significant moment occurred during my first educational presentation at SFU's Learning Together conference in 2016. This memory stands out vividly as I co-presented with my eldest son, who was just five years old. Initially, I felt apprehensive, questioning whether my son, with his unique perspective, belonged in an academic setting surrounded by faculty members and educators. Our presentation was titled "Cultivating Scientific Thinking Through Development of the Reflective Student."  

Our presentation shared theoretical pieces along with excerpts from my self-reflective journey as a science educator and a mother, and Khafri, my son, demonstrated and explained Newton's law of centrifugal force by showing how a small bucket of water stays in the bucket when swung in the circle. At first, his little body stuck close to me because he was nervous; as learners and teachers in the audience cheered him on, he gained confidence and even answered a couple of questions afterward. As the presentation concluded, I felt his presence enriched my learning, and his invaluable contributions demonstrated his role as BOTH a learner and teacher to the audience. He showed us, the educators, the impact of science education in the early years and active engagement.  

This experience enlightened me that my children and other students are not merely objects of study but integral collaborators in our educational journey. They serve as co-researchers, co-creators of knowledge, and co-learners, enriching our understanding of pedagogy and fostering a collaborative learning environment. "

Q: What advice would you give to those who wish to make their work more community-oriented?

A: My advice is to embrace inclusivity and collaboration and aim to make your work more community oriented. Community engagement should not be seen as merely an add-on to research but as a core element that enriches and informs your work. Engage with your community early in the research process, seeking to understand their needs, concerns, and the knowledge they hold. This approach ensures that your work is grounded in real-world issues and helps build trust and mutual respect, key elements I learned as a research participant in SFU's Community Engaged Research Initiative (CERI) program.

Community engagement is as much about listening and learning from the community as it is about sharing academic knowledge. My experience at SFU has underscored the importance of authenticity and the impact of building genuine relationships, fostering a sense of shared ownership and responsibility in both the successes and challenges of the work undertaken.

Dr. Poh Tan's recognition as a Rising Star for Service to the Community highlights her commitment to blending educational rigour with meaningful community engagement. Her work shapes educational practices and policies and inspires a vision where inclusivity and collaboration are foundational. As she continues advocating for integrating diverse perspectives in education, Dr. Tan's journey is a powerful example of how dedicated individuals can drive significant community transformation and foster a more inclusive future.