Podcast: Alberto Naviera: STEM tutoring

In today’s episode, I speak with one of Signet’s Principal Tutors, Alberto Naviera. We discuss Alberto’s unique approach to STEM tutoring, his empathetic connections with students, and how he empowers them to conquer the challenges of learning science. Tune in to learn more about how we meet students where they are at Signet!


Sheila Akbar: 

And then to know that you’ve been able to engender that confidence in her to know like, you can do this there are steps now you know what they are? That’s like priceless, right? Hi everybody, today I get to sit down with one of our principal tutors here at Signet Education, to talk about his educational journey and how he’s able to leverage that experience and his academic knowledge to be an awesome tutor. And I was particularly excited for him to share his story because I think it’s really representative of a lot of us out there falling what we thought was a passion, and then having to pivot, but still finding meaningful ways to use those experiences that we may have pivoted away from in our daily lives. I also think this is a great example of how tutors at Signet operate. And so I’m excited for you to kind of get a peek behind the curtain here. Let me tell you about who you’re going to hear from his name is Alberto Naviera. He’s been with us for a number of years now he did his undergrad at MIT. And he started a PhD at Tufts this fall in computer science. But most of his education thus far has been in biology, biological engineering, and other STEM subjects. And so that’s what he tutors here at Signet. He’s particularly good at math, biology, chemistry, and now computer science. And the students that he works with always feel so supported and so much more confident in their abilities in these different areas where they may be struggling or trying to get ahead. So take a listen. And I hope you enjoy it. Alberto, thank you so much for joining me today.

Alberto Naveira: Thank you for having me, Sheila. It’s a pleasure.

Sheila Akbar: I’m always excited to talk to one of Signet’s own tutors, because I find that, you know, as long as we’ve worked together, I still learn really awesome things about you. And so I’m just excited to have this conversation. So let’s start a little bit with what you do now. So your work for Signet and what you do outside of Signet?

Alberto Naveira: Absolutely. So I am currently one of Signet’s principal tutors. So I specifically focus on anything else to do with STEM tutoring, math, physics and anything in between. I just like to get into the nitty gritty of subjects and really help students think about the hows and whys of the stuff that they teach them and kind of help them through some of their learning challenges. Outside of Signet, I am kind of between things I am wrapping up an employment experience at a biotech startup doing computational biology work. I’ve been doing that for the past two years since I graduated college. And it’s been super fulfilling. And I am moving on to start a PhD program to study computational biology. It’ll officially be computer science, but the research that I’ll be doing will be in computational biology. So getting deeper and deeper into that sphere, something that I really enjoy, and I think complements really well with some of the work that I do here and at Signet.

Sheila Akbar: That’s great. I’m very excited for you to work through that PhD. Okay, so let’s back up and talk about how you got there and where these interests came from. So take me back in time to high school Alberto. Where did you grow up?

Alberto Naveira: So I grew up in Puerto Rico.

Sheila Akbar: Okay, and then how did you decide what your college experience was going to look like? What was that process like for you?

Alberto Naveira: Yeah, absolutely. So I went to high school and there’s a very conservative Catholic bubble. That’s just kind of the only choice of education back home if you want to get a decent education. And I was always a huge fan of anything STEM related. Ironically, I didn’t know what computer science was back then. But I absolutely loved anything science, math. I was super involved not only in my classes, but in a math and science competitions, doing a bunch of extracurriculars here and there. And how it ties into tutoring is eventually sort of towards junior senior year of high school, people, other peers in my classes started to kind of pick up that I just kind of had it easier than they did not because I was like extra extra smarter just because for some reason the material really clicked with me, and they started taking me on when they were having challenges in preparing for exams, or maybe studying for for the AP exams when those became relevant. And they would literally invite me to hang out and study parties, people that I wouldn’t necessarily consider friends. And I was like, Why are you inviting me to your house, they started inviting me to their houses and two different hangouts, so that we could all study together. And I would literally, I remember, I had this whiteboard that I bought with a tripod, and I would set it up in their living room. And, and we would just work through problems. And we would study together. And that’s kind of how it started, I just really enjoyed the dynamic and the experience of, I had some level of understanding that other people found useful. And not only that, but that the process of me explaining the way that I understood things really resonated with other people and was helpful to other people. So I really started falling in love with that experience. And especially as I moved on to college, obviously, there was a big transition, adjusting to being at MIT, kind of being surrounded by other people that make you feel dumber than what you actually. But you know, after adjusting to all of that, I still felt that same need, and desire to take the understanding that I had for my classes and other things, and kind of put that forward and help the community with that. So the sort of biggest experience that I have in college is through MIT is Office of Minority Education, which is kind of just how it sounds, it focuses on helping minorities at MIT, anywhere from black people to Hispanic communities and everything else. And kind of just lending resources to those communities that would otherwise be hard to to get otherwise, I got involved with them. Because right when I got to MIT, I did a program that they haven’t called interface, which essentially, is a segue between high school and college originally designed for, for these minorities that maybe had some blank spaces and their high school preparation that they needed to sort of catch up on before they started college. So I did that coming into MIT, it was super helpful. And then the summer afterwards, I got involved as part of the teaching staff, and not only was able to tutor and mentor different people, and you know, math, but I also served as a mentor for people going into MIT, which was a really, really rewarding experience to just kind of relay the stuff that I had gone through even just a year prior, and kind of help people through this really tough transition. So I got super involved with that. I did that a couple of years back to back, the last one being 2020, which was weird, it was virtual, it was COVID. But I did that a couple of times really loved that every single time. I also participated in some other tutoring programs, mainly this one program called the talented scholars resource room, they call it TSR squared, which is kind of just this room that’s focused on academic resources for students. They have study groups and problems at nights. They have one on one tutoring sessions that they offer. I helped with both of those the piece at nights and the one on one tutoring sessions. I also participated in this other program that they had called Seminar Excel, which is kind of just extra recitations for people that really wanted them for certain classes. And yeah, just all of those experiences not only offered a platform for me to keep practicing my communication, leadership and just general portrayal of knowledge. But it also gave me an opportunity to give back to this community that I really treasured. And just kind of become a more mindful part of that community and really get to know and love the art of tutoring.

Sheila Akbar: That’s such a great story. I love that, that you were able to give back in so many ways. And I know that when I get to work with a student, I find it so rewarding to be able to help someone through something that is challenging to them that like, uniquely I am qualified to help them with. But I also find that it helps me understand the material better, right, based on the questions they’re asking or the way that I might need to take them into a subject. It gives me this sort of creative opportunity to explore a subject in a different way.

Alberto Naveira: Absolutely. Yep.

Sheila Akbar: Yeah, it’s really great. It’s a really fun cycle to be a part of. So you decided to go to MIT and you studied biology there, right? I did. So tell us about the journey from biology to computational biology.

Alberto Naveira: Just to be pedantic and clarify, I did biological engineering, as opposed to pure biology. I did biology because my lifelong childhood dream was to become a doctor, I always looked up to my mom. She’s been a doctor for over 30 years now. I wouldn’t say I wanted to follow in her footsteps. But it’s just kind of one of those things that you grew up with, and you like saw every single day, and you’re like, Yeah, that sounds cool. And I just find that way, I saw it as a cool way to take my passion for STEM and give back to the community in a pretty direct way. So for me, it just kind of always made sense. And that was the, the pathway going into college, it was the the sort of strategy coming out of college, honestly, I finished my degree in biological engineering. And I was applying to med schools and I fortunately got into med school. But then I realized that that’s not necessarily what I wanted to do, which involves a lot of soul searching, and actually like sitting down and thinking, what the day to day would look like. As a doctor, I just realized that that wasn’t really what interested me the most. But to answer your question more directly as to how we went from there to computer science and computational biology. At the beginning of my undergrad, I started learning about what computer science was, I took some basic programming classes, and a year or two into my undergrad, I kind of caught up to speed with the fact that computer science and everything that has to do with computational technology, it’s just kind of the future of technology. And whether we like it or not, it’s just going to become and it has become already an integral part of anything has to do with modern technology and modern science and engineering. And so for me, that was a no brainer to just kind of go deeper into that sphere, and to leverage my love and passion for STEM while also doing something that was definitely very useful. So that was the initial attraction. But then the more that I started getting into it, the more that I started to learn the science, math and logic behind everything, the more we honestly started to really enjoy working on it. And by the time I finished my undergrad, I had a full minor in Computer Science, along with my degree in biological engineering. So when I was still in this sort of, I don’t know what I’m gonna do face, I took my preparation, not only in biology, but computer science, and just kind of use that as an opportunity to explore something new, which is how I landed in computational biology, it definitely helped that I resented the thought of going into a wet lab and doing more biology experiments, it’s just never been my niche. And so for me, it was a really exciting opportunity. And I’ve loved every second of it for the past two years. And I’m excited to go deeper into the computer science part of it, which is kind of the whole motivation of this PhD, right. And now I want to go headfirst into this really cool world of just computational solutions to real world problems. I really enjoy thinking about the different challenges that come out. But I enjoy thinking about the scalability of solutions. That’s something that I find really exciting. And whether or not I stay in computational biology specifically, or I just go anywhere else in the computer science sphere is yet to be determined. But for now, that’s sort of the mindset and the approach going into grad school.

Sheila Akbar: I love that. And I actually didn’t realize that you were a pre med, we have so much more in common than I ever thought I was also a pre med, because my dad was a doctor. And it was like, Yeah, that’s what you do. And I’ve talked about this on other episodes of the podcast, but I had my sort of moment of realization that medicine was not for me before I took the MCAT it looks like you had years after and after the whole grueling application process. But you know, those realizations come to us when we’re ready for them. And sometimes you have to have one foot in the door before you realize, oh, that’s that’s not it. That’s not it. But I love this new direction that you’re taking. I’m really excited for you. So let’s talk about how all of this kind of background and your own educational journey impacts how you tutor and how you relate to students.

Alberto Naveira: I mean, I think the first sort of most obvious thing is I’m really empathetic and understanding about people that are not only going through really tough classes better just going through a really tough time in their life, like, we take it for granted because it’s just kind of the normal thing to do. But going through the college admissions, or even post college as an 18, or 21, 22 year olds, and kind of having this big decision of what you’re going to do with your life is a really daunting thing to go through. Now, I consider myself lucky that I had many resources. And I had a lot of support, and just kind of a lot of freedom and an exploring and choosing what I think would be best for me. But some people have a really tough time kind of going through that process. So I think the first sort of most obvious thing is just being really empathetic and understanding of people that are going through those experiences. And literally just to being a mentor in that process. I’ve had a good number of students come into tutoring sessions and be like, I’m super stressed out, I can’t think of science or math right now. And I’m like, Hey, what’s going on? Let’s talk about it. And we literally talk through things like I have this offer to commit to this program. But I want to also apply it to other programs, what do I do, I think it’s nice to understand what that feels like and where people are coming from and, and sort of the stress that comes along with that. I think the other sort of interesting aspect that comes up, when you think about that is thinking about the different ways in which your personal experience and your personal interests and goals, kind of effect your perspective of different subjects and different just things to know, I found it really, really interesting and enlightening. How different somebody can look at a physics course, just to give a very arbitrary example, I’ve had people take physics as a potential physics major. I’ve had people take physics, as a, I don’t know, math or computer science major, I’ve had people take physics, as somebody trying to getting some sort of health or medical degree. I’ve heard people’s faces because they need to take it in order to graduate and they want to do something completely different, like literature and humanities. So I think having been in at the very least two major kind of buckets of communities and perspectives, being ones in pre med, and then being in a kind of more engineering computer science sphere, it’s just really cool to see different perspectives of different ways that people understand different ideas. And I find that very useful to bring into a tutoring session, or tutoring experience in general. It’s just one of those things where if you’ve only been taught something through one particular perspective, it’s hard to see that there might be other perspectives. And occasionally it hits to at least to a roadblock with certain students, right, that don’t necessarily know how to understand your own perspective. So being able to abstract myself and think about things in a couple of different perspectives, is something that I found super useful to just kind of level with students and meet them where they’re at and kind of maximize the extent to which the student and I can understand each other.

Sheila Akbar: And that was an amazing answer. First of all, I applaud you. But I also think it’s I mean, it’s just so heartwarming, right? And that empathy and flexibility of perspective, I think, is what makes you such a great tutor. There are plenty of people who can teach math and physics, there are not a lot of people who can be that empathetic partner supporter through a challenge, right. And one of the things you said particularly resonated with me, because it sounds a lot like one of our core values, which I know, you know, is Teach Students, Not Subjects. And I think that’s exactly what you’re talking about here, right? We’re not just teaching physics, and it’s not just taught in this one way. And you have to understand it this way, in this particular language and this particular order of concepts. It’s more like, Okay, where’s the student at and what do they need from me? And how can I meet them where they are and make this understandable to them? Whether they are, you know, a person who is really a more of a humanities kind of student, they see that as their strengths or someone who is, you know, maybe going to be a physics major. There are different approaches you need to take and your ability to tell which approach you should take with this student is one of the things that makes you really awesome. So let’s round this out with maybe some of those stories of, you know, some of the students you worked with, and kind of the biggest transformations you’ve seen in their relationship to whatever subject you happen to be tutoring them to.

Alberto Naveira: I think one of the most compelling stories, probably because it just resonates so much with my own experience was this one students that I had in my first year working on signets, she was pursuing this sort of like Master’s in Health degree. And she had this physics requirement. And when she was absolutely not very excited to take and, and get through. So when we first got together, and we started doing tutoring sessions, it was always so painful for her to come into our sessions and be like, I don’t understand anything that’s going on, I’m looking at this problem set. And just nothing makes sense. So we started there. And we really, really worked on sort of tackling key knowledge points, breaking those down, explaining those in a way that was not only easy for her to understand, but also just useful for her. Especially because this physics course was kind of tailored towards like health, anatomy sort of physics. And it’s not like, by the end of the course, she absolutely adored physics, you know, let’s be real. That’s not the goal. But I do think that we hit our main goal of her not hating physics for one. And also just feeling more and more comfortable, right? It wasn’t a matter of, Oh, my God, I’m looking at this problem set, and nothing makes sense. And I don’t know where to start. It’s more so like, oh, yeah, I kind of understand what I need to do with these things. I know that I read it all said, if I see this kind of problem, I need to break it down and do this, this and that. And, and that was super cool to see. And it’s also just a really rewarding experience to take in somebody that was so adamant, and so in so much pain when it came to this course. And to really turn that around. And I’ve definitely had a couple students like that. Maybe some more in math, but just to, I think, just to name one example that that kind of just resonates really, really deeply with me.

Sheila Akbar: Yeah, that’s, that’s a great example. And like you said, the goal isn’t to make them love something that they started out hating, but at least she stopped hating it. That’s, that’s real growth. And then to know that you’ve been able to engender that confidence in her to know like, you can do this, there are steps now you know what they are? That’s like, priceless, right? There are people who feel like, you know, math and physics and some of those advanced sciences. That’s where the concepts get. So beyond that, if you don’t have that kind of, we’ll call it like an adventurous attitude towards the subject, you can decide, I’m not smart enough for it, or, you know, that’s not for me. But when you can give students the tools to have confidence to know that they can handle whatever is being thrown at them, and that they can learn whatever comes next. I mean, that’s just amazing. So kudos to you. Well, I think that’s a great place to leave it. Alberto, thank you for spending time with me today.

Alberto Naveira: Thank you for having me, Sheila, it’s been really, really fun to take this opportunity and reflect with

Sheila Akbar: I just love that this conversation came back to you. Signet’s core values. This is the one that we have last on the list, but because I think it is the anchor to all the rest of our values. And the real secret to why my team is so good at connecting with students and helping them achieve their academic goals is because we’re trying to meet them where they are. We’re not just depositing knowledge in their head or making sure they get their homework 100% Correct. We are really helping them understand where they are, where they want to get to, and then helping them walk that path between those two places, and giving them tools, habits, routines, processes, frameworks for thinking about the challenges that are in front of them, whether that is in a subject like biology or physics, or whether it is more around a learning challenge or a struggle organizing their work, or getting things done or even something as complex as the college process. So I hope that was helpful and if you or someone you know wants to work with Alberto reach out to us and we We could talk about your situation and how we might be able to help see you next week thanks everybody

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