“I like to make a personal connection with students. It establishes a lovely rapport,” says Hazel Sive, who learns students’ names and makes a special effort to know students one-to-one.

An associate professor of biology and a member of the Whitehead Institute, Sive earned a degree in chemistry and zoology from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1976. A decade later, she earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Rockefeller University in New York. She joined the faculty in 1991. Recently, she won the MIT School of Science Teaching Award.

Sive has 275 students, including undergrads and grads, who say that her great strength as a teacher is that she is a great communicator. And, they say, she has the amazing ability to make what is abstract concrete.

“It’s very hard to envision what goes on biologically as you go from a single cell to a complex animal. You can show all the pictures and slides you like, but you really don’t know what it’s like unless you can hold something in your hand,” says Sive, who passes out small colored sponges and asks students to pretend each is a cell; then she instructs them to build the cells into an animal.

Sive is famous for using visuals in the classroom. She shows movies and PowerPoint slides. She also invites in guest lecturers. To keep the subject alive, she relates the lecture to biology in the news, say, stem cell research or cloning. Day after day, she shows students how the subject is relevant to life.

“My greatest vision,” Sive says, “is to convey the excitement and richness of the subject. Biology is fantastic.”