Yinfa Ma Passes on the Gift of Mentoring

Yinfa Ma, Curators’ Teaching Professor of chemistry at Missouri S&T, has a CV littered with awards and accolades, publications and patents, yet as a young man he never aspired to be more than a rural farmer in his homeland of China. That is, until his life was turned upside down in 1977.

It was three years after he had completed high school when the decade-long Cultural Revolution in his country ended. A visit from his former high school math teacher, Mrs. Liu, riding into his village on her bicycle with an urgent message, challenged everything he thought about his future.

“Students are now being accepted into the university through an entrance examination system, and I want you to apply,” she told him. “Of the whole class, you are the only person I can think of who can pass the entrance exam. Yinfa, you have to take the exam!”

Less than one person in a thousand in his region would be chosen, with the formidable exam covering physics, chemistry, math, politics and language. Ma at 23 served as the planner for the collective farms of five villages in addition to being a farmer himself. Higher education was not on his radar.

It was only at the math teacher’s insistence that he half-heartedly studied using her old textbook, and then reluctantly took the test. Mrs. Liu’s estimation was correct. He passed the exam and entered Zhengzhou University where he earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry four years later. He became a full-fledged faculty member with only an undergraduate degree -- not unusual at the time due to the urgent need of college educators across the entire country.

New challenges

Ma was thrilled to be teaching students his beloved subject of chemistry and planned to do that for the rest of his life. Then, a few years later, another mentor urged him to apply for a graduate position at Iowa State University. Again, the odds were against him. He struggled with English, having begun to learn it only a few years earlier, and he had to pass several required tests in addition to the TOEFL to be chosen travel to America. The mentor’s belief in him prevailed once again, though, and four years later Ma had earned two Ph.D.’s at Iowa State, one in analytical chemistry and a minor Ph.D. in biochemistry.

The common thread in his life – mentors who believed in him and pushed him to go beyond what he thought possible – surely has been replicated through his own life as countless students and other faculty have experienced the benefits of his tutelage. Last spring, Ma was honored with the University of  Missouri System President’s Award for Mentoring, marking his 24 years of believing in others and developing them to their highest potential in the classroom and laboratory.

Ma’s first love continues to be teaching, although he prefers to include that term under the broader label of mentoring. “You teach knowledge,” he says. “In mentoring you work with the students on how to attack a problem.” Ma tries to link learning to each person’s motivation and goals. A student asking for help on homework may hear Ma say, “Let’s put the problem aside. Let’s think about why you need to take this class. What will you need for your future and what you want to be?”

Ma taught the gateway chemistry class at S&T for nine years, primarily to freshmen. He would begin his first lecture saying, “How many of you hate chemistry? Raise your hand.” When a third of the class or more indicated their dislike, he would issue a challenge. “If you can convince me that your future career does not have a link with chemistry at all, you will automatically get an A in chemistry.” No one took him up on his challenge, but he was successful in getting students to see the value of what they learned in his class.

Leading the way

Ma held sessions similar to LEAD (Learning Enhancement Across Disciplines) before he knew there was such a program. During his 11-year stay at Truman State, which was his first faculty position after his doctorate, he connected with students by offering evening sessions in classrooms to go over problems with whomever showed up.

“I put students in groups to discuss problems and then discussed them on the board,” he said. “I would give prizes and have competitions. I built an environment for students to come and learn. I found out that when you can generate interest, they won’t be bored; they will spend the extra time. Just work with them.”

Ma compensated for his still-developing English skills by using the chalkboard to write profusely so he could communicate as clearly as possible. He won all of the teaching awards Truman State offered, including the most prestigious one offered from the campus, Educator of the Year, in 1996.

In moving to S&T in 2002, Ma continued with his love of teaching/mentoring students and added cutting-edge research in cancer detection.

Mentoring faculty

When he was awarded the Curators’ Teaching Professor designation in 2006, Ma began mentoring younger faculty who asked for his assistance, especially international faculty. Some of his mentees have benefited to the extent that they are now award-winning teachers themselves, such as Xiaoping Du, who was recently promoted to full professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Ma has distilled his time-tested experience into a few skills that can be easily implemented in the classroom: First: “Slow down! For the first two weeks of class, do not rush,” he tells instructors. “Make sure students can understand.”

Secondly, “Be organized!” Students should be able to follow a logical pattern in the course and not have surprises in class that are not already laid out in the syllabus. Thirdly: Get feedback! He likes to ask his students for anonymous feedback about a month into the semester. How do students feel about the class? How can it be improved? He uses student feedback to modify what he is doing instead of waiting until the end of the semester to make changes. “If you find out you are a non-effective teacher then (at the end of the course), it doesn’t do you any good.”

Finally, he also encourages instructors to adopt a positive attitude. Ma’s boundless enthusiasm is one of his most notable attributes. He tries to point out what students are doing well rather than focusing on students who aren’t meeting his expectations.

Ma says he still visits Mrs. Liu when he returns to his homeland. She cries when she sees that her mentee has gone far beyond what she could have imagined. Like his mentor, Ma wants to be a catalyst for change for those he influences and see them exceed his wildest expectations.