Ten years ago, Edwina Kinchington was holed up in a laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, researching lung cancer. It was a far cry from where she finds herself these days, in front of a classroom of teenagers at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy (SciTech)—working a job she deems her “true calling.”

Unlike many educators whose careers were inspired by extraordinary teachers, Kinchington went into the field to give students something she never had herself.

“I didn’t have mentors that really pushed me or encouraged me until it was fairly late in my educational life,” she said. As a postdoc and researcher at Pitt, Kinchington was patient with all the students who came through her lab because she knew they might be as lost as she once was. Supporting them was rewarding.

Kinchington’s students do “real-world science”—tasks like micropipetting and gel electrophoresis.

“You come to a point in time when you reevaluate where you are in your work and life,” Kinchington said. “I wanted to help those students. I wanted to teach high school because there’s so many opportunities out there today. Everything is so much more competitive and you have to be well-prepared.”

After receiving her teaching credentials, in 2009 Kinchington found herself among the inaugural faculty at SciTech, a grades 6-12 Pittsburgh Public Schools magnet. She teaches advanced life sciences to 10th and 11th graders, and co-leads a required senior research project. This year, she received the Pennsylvania Outstanding Biology Teacher Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers, the top award in the state.

Her transition from lab to classroom was made easier by SciTech’s hands-on curriculum and an administration that grants teachers flexibility and creative control. Kinchington’s students do “real-world science”—tasks like micropipetting and gel electrophoresis. Although it has been years since she worked in the field, Kinchington closely tracks biomedical research and technology. She calls her students’ attention to developments and even started a “journal club” where students analyze the latest academic publications. Students doubting the relevancy of their schoolwork to their lives and careers need only look to their teacher.

Kinchington’s connection to Pitt provides rich opportunities for her students. SciTech is located on the university’s campus in Oakland, and her students have been able to network and intern with researchers there.

“Pittsburgh is being redefined, so to speak, as a hi-tech industry, so there’s a need for computer science, a need for biotechnologists, a need for engineers.”

“All of the people I’ve worked with through University of Pittsburgh and locally, they want to help, to give back to the students and our next generation of science employees,” Kinchington said. “Pittsburgh is being redefined, so to speak, as a hi-tech industry, so there’s a need for computer science, a need for biotechnologists, a need for engineers.”

The former researcher is constantly thinking of ways to immerse her students in hands-on work. In the senior research class, Executive Experience, her students design their own projects. In the past, some have worked with local scientists to clone a gene. Last year, one of her classes got some press when it participated in a worldwide videoconference about Ebola.

“It takes a hardworking and knowledgeable teacher to make things relevant,” Kinchington said. But she knows that is easier said than done, for any educator.

Kinchington struggles to find time to support each of her students, who need more one-on-one guidance than she can provide. “With diverse classes and minimal prep time, there’s just some students who need more support and other students at the other end who need to be pushed more,” she said. “The challenge is time.”

For more in this series see Teaching Spanish as a Window to the World, Perfecting the Art of Afterschool Science, and For Pioneering Pittsburgh Educator, It’s Full STEAM Ahead.