2013-05-30 / Schools

Retiring teacher’s love of science was infectious

By Darleen Principe

CATCHING—Retiring La Reina High School science department chair Sadhana Neurgaonkar displays her students’plastic foam and pipe-cleaner virus models in her lab at the school. 
IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers CATCHING—Retiring La Reina High School science department chair Sadhana Neurgaonkar displays her students’plastic foam and pipe-cleaner virus models in her lab at the school. IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers Viruses are infectious. Microscopic in size and undetectable by the naked eye, they literally get under the skin and thrive within the cells of living organisms.

But in Sadhana Neurgaonkar’s case, some viruses are infectious in the figurative sense as well.

“I think I’m going to take a couple of these with me,” said Neurgaonkar, as she held up a few colorful model viruses fashioned out of foam pool noodles, pipe cleaners, beads and cotton balls. “The human respiratory virus—there you go. That’s a cute virus.

“I’m going to keep some of these as a memento.”

The La Reina High School science teacher glanced around her classroom on the final day of school last week, contemplating aloud how she planned to pack up the numerous student projects strewn along the counters and hanging from the ceiling.

It won’t be an easy task for the retiring educator, who will have to clean up her classroom for the very last time after 28 years of service at the all-girls, Catholic junior and senior high school.

“I will miss the people the most, and the environment,” she said. “I know the school will prosper in the sense of their commitment to excellent education in all fields. The outstanding education that girls get here is going to continue for sure. That’s what I will pray for, but it will happen, I know.”

Before she became a teacher, Neurgaonkar was a biologist. She earned a bachelor’s degree in science and botany in India and a master’s degree in agricultural science at Penn State University.

When her husband, Ratnakar, also a scientist, was offered a job at Rockwell Science Center in Thousand Oaks, the couple decided to move to the West Coast with their then-infant daughter, Sujata.

Being so close to Cal Lutheran University, the biologist decided to get her teaching credential. She was hired at La Reina in 1985 and has been with the school ever since.

“I’m glad, truly, that I became a teacher,” she said. “I think this is my passion and I’m glad I found it. Every day has been a joy to come here and work here. This is a great school.”

State-of-the-art laboratory

Besides teaching science and biology in every grade level at La Reina, Neurgaonkar has also been chair of the science department for the past 20 years.

Over the decades she’s been instrumental in implementing a number of AP science classes, continuing the school science fair and bringing state-of-the-art biotechnology equipment to the program.

La Reina’s science labs today are equipped with high-end radiation Geiger counters, Vernier LabQuest computers with various data collection probes and a thermal cycler machine for studying DNA, just to name a few pieces.

“The school gave me a lot of support for getting technology,” Neurgaonkar said. “A few of the pieces were through donations. Amgen, for example, used to donate a lot to schools and teachers.

“And we got a lot of parent support also.”

Elizabeth Grode, a graduating senior, said having access to cutting-edge laboratory equipment allowed her to experience science in a “hands-on manner” and directed her toward pursuing a degree in neuroscience at UCLA in the fall.

“A lot of science is having that physical representation of what’s going on,” the 18-year-old Camarillo resident said. “It’s good to read about science in a textbook, but to have the visual aspect . . . it’s tangible. I think it makes science more relatable.”

Neurgaonkar’s students also credit her with making science fun.

“She’s really involved in students’ lives,” said 17-year-old Karina Sample of Simi Valley. “She’s really passionate about teaching, and she makes the classroom fun for all her students.”

Another senior, Emily Castillo, said that although she only had Neurgaonkar as a teacher in freshman year, it made a difference in the rest of her education.

“Because she likes science so much, we start to like it too,” the 17-year-old Simi Valley resident said. “I think what makes her different is she cares so much about students and how much they understand.

“She focuses on each and every student, rather than just the class as a whole.”

Future scientists

In addition to heading the science department at La Reina, Neurgaonkar also served on the State Department of Education’s textbook selection committee and gave presentations at numerous science conferences throughout the region.

Many of her students over the years have gone on to become physicists, doctors and scientists, some of whom still keep in touch.

Others simply discovered science in a new way during their teen years.

“I think I treated students with respect,” the teacher said. “I haven’t talked down to them like they’re little kids. Respect, compassion and empathy—that’s my thing.”

Stacey Bacheller, 18, of Thousand Oaks never had Neurgaonkar for a teacher but is nevertheless grateful for her guidance.

“I won the excellence award in math and science a few months ago,” said Stacey, who was president of the Mathletes this year. “She was really supportive and proud of me, as if I had her as a teacher.

“With students she’s never even taught, she encourages them if they find a field that they’re passionate about. When I won the award, she sat at my table, introduced me to the speaker and helped me make connections that will benefit me in the future.”

Another graduate, 18-year-old Gabrielle Tricoli of Camarillo, said Neurgaonkar inspired her to pursue a career in medicine.

“Her biology class really opened the world of science for me,” said Gabrielle, who will attend Baylor University in the fall. “Her wisdom of teaching both in and out of the classroom helped me to grow as a student and expand my aspirations for college.”

In retirement, Neurgaonkar and her husband plan to move to Oakland, where the couple’s daughter, Sujata; her husband, Murali; and their children, Kiran and Riya, live.

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