Dara Ruiz-Whalen wearing a colorful blouse with cardigan, poses in front of a garden
Image courtesy of Dara Ruiz-Whalen

That teacher. You know, the one who changes your life, who sets you on your path, who truly makes a difference. Who drops the stone to create the first ripple.

Maybe you never actually took a class with them, but they show up in your life at the right time as an influential educator.

You set off on your path, forever changed by this teacher, never realizing that 20 (okay, okay, 25) years later you'll be interviewing candidates to serve as graduate student speaker at your college's graduation ceremony and see that teacher's name again in an application essay. Because he had that kind of influence on someone else, too.

Weeks later, you sit down to chat with the recently selected graduate student speaker. You've blocked an hour for the interview, but you spend almost that much time reminiscing about high school (you attended a decade apart), exploring your commonalities and your differences. Her, sitting at a desk with a microscope off to the side and a periodic table "N Er Dy" poster on the wall. You, wondering what those elements are because you just didn't get chemistry. Ever. (You share a curious nature, though, and so you look it up and find it refers to Neon, Erbium and Dysprosium… but there are limits to the science you can handle so you pump the brakes on your curiosity there.)

Thanks, Mr. Mat - Tony Matarazzo - for shaping us both, in different ways, to cross paths many years later. Hail Northeast!

From Cottman and Algon to Broad and Cecil B. Moore, Dara Ruiz-Whalen (EDU '95, '01, '24) has paved her way to becoming one of the newest "threepeats" - a three-time Temple Owl! She is set to graduate this May with a PhD in science education and will serve as the graduate student speaker at the College of Education and Human Development's graduation ceremony on Thursday, May 9.

"I was Temple Made before I was Temple Made, before it was a hashtag," Ruiz-Whalen jokes, noting that her mother worked for Temple University Hospital, so she grew up immersed in cherry and white. It's the only school, she said, that was ever talked about in her home.

Still, Ruiz-Whalen says, what she would do with that college experience was unknown.

When she began her college journey, Ruiz-Whalen says her parents selected her major after teachers and others said she would make a good teacher. She landed at Temple as an elementary education major. It's not uncommon for first-year students to change their majors, and Ruiz-Whalen made a shift early on to secondary education. That's when, she says, she took a student worker job in the biology department and everything clicked, leading her to pursue secondary education with a focus in biology. Student teaching at her alma mater, Northeast High School, sealed the deal.

"I knew the decisions were right," Ruiz-Whalen says. "This is what I'm supposed to do. This is where I belong."

The Circuit of Life

Life happened, as it does. Ruiz-Whalen married her high school sweetheart and left her classroom teaching career to work in laboratories. Joining a lab team at Princeton University and having the chance to work with students, she says, she found the confidence to teach adults. Noticing that her non-linear path was always education adjacent and feeling in control of her own destiny, she decided to work toward her master's degree. Once again, Ruiz-Whalen chose Temple and completed her MS in science education in 2001.

Even before her Temple 2.0 experience was through, professor Matthew Bruce was telling Ruiz-Whalen about a new doctoral program she should explore. He explained the program as one designed to train people to teach in non-traditional, informal settings, such as museums. Her interest was piqued.

Life happened again, as it does. Ruiz-Whalen says she "put a pin in the program" temporarily as her family grew. While she fulfilled her personal passions as a parent, she remained connected to her professional passions by teaching courses at a community college.

Always testing different pathways for her energy and pursuing what sparked, Ruiz-Whalen continued advancing as an educator and researcher, and was soon invited to collaborate on developing an informal cancer research program for high school students in a lab at Fox Chase Cancer Center. She says she thought it would be a "one and done" program, but it turned out to be a launchpad. The feedback they received through the program inspired her to want to train teachers, and she began running teacher training programs the fall of the same year.

"Everybody deserves an education and teachers who care," Ruiz-Whalen says. "It's my belief that everyone has the right to have someone that cares about them having the tools they'll need later."

It didn't take long for her program to grow and in 2019, Ruiz-Whalen teamed up with her long-time colleague, Alana O'Reilly, to start eCLOSE Institute, a non-profit biomedical training hub. "We were going to change Philadelphia," she says.

Life happened again. With the COVID-19 pandemic, labs and schools shut down. Every partner the eCLOSE Institute had accumulated cancelled. Ruiz-Whalen picked up the phone to call her final remaining partner and told him, "I'm prepared to take this whole thing online." She adds, "We became the only program in the country to offer this in an online format, shipping out lab boxes. And it was because I had the training [combining science, teaching and technology] that I was able to harness."

Ruiz-Whalen says she began hearing from teachers who felt empowered through her services to provide science education in a new way that the world suddenly demanded. Now, she says, eCLOSE Institute just celebrated its fifth birthday, has been contracted for multi-year programs with the American Cancer Society and is engaging with research in other areas such as diabetes and mental health. Ruiz-Whalen serves as co-executive director and chief learning officer.

Three Times an Owl

At first, Ruiz-Whalen says she wanted to pursue her doctorate to help secure grant-funding for projects, enabling her to be listed as a principal investigator on grant proposals. Now clearly in the driver's seat, Whalen explains that it wasn't about Temple choosing her, but about her choosing Temple.

"As a non-traditional learner, I interviewed faculty first," Ruiz-Whalen boasts. Some of the influential faculty she met include Carol Brandt, who shared a background in both education and science, and Jim Byrnes, whose research interests include cognitive processes/development, mathematics education and problem-solving. Both submitted letters of recommendation in support of her application to speak at graduation.

"When I got admitted, I cried my eyes out," Ruiz-Whalen reflects, laughing. "Partially because I was excited, partially because I was terrified." But she quickly found herself at home.

Temple is unique, she explains, because of the way in which doctoral students are engaged. "You walk in and every course you took was working toward the dissertation," she remarks, noting that working with her advisor, she was able to design her curriculum to suit her needs. "Each course helped me write a chapter of my dissertation. Temple really sets you up for success. I don't just say that because I bleed cherry and white, I do, but no one knew that. I did my due diligence knowing that it was truly the best school."

An Owl for an Owl

Ruiz-Whalen is eager to share her passion for Temple with other Owls and now serves as a member of the college's alumni board.

"I really want people to be proud of having gone to Temple and I want them to come back to Temple," she says. "We're always going to be here for you. We're all Owls, we stay Owls."

While admitting that she "accidentally" found her way into this new role, Ruiz-Whalen says she is excited to support students as they begin their Temple journey, and alumni as they begin their careers. She shares that she is excited to get involved with activities from handing out snacks to students during study day to meeting with Dean Monika Williams Shealey.

"It's not just about what you receive as a part of the college," according to Ruiz-Whalen. "It's giving back. I'm part of the persistent motion in the college. We're going through a lot of change and you're going to want to be a part of it."

Creating Ripples

Getting here didn't always seem possible, she says. Not with a family and two jobs (in addition to eCLOSE Institute, Ruiz-Whalen is also the education director of the Immersion Science Program at the Fox Chance Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System). A sign by her desk reads: "It's always impossible until it's done."

Though she has stayed close to home, from one city block to another, her work has far-reaching impact. "eCLOSE is launching a digital platform," she shares. "We worked with amazing teachers and students on creating a learning management system that is going to go national. Seeing this all come together - making something that will be accessible to every classroom in the country. This journey isn't over."

"I'd be lying if I told you I am not already looking at other certificates," Ruiz-Whalen admits. "You're never too old to learn something new. I'm not in a hurry. It's not a race to the finish line, it's enjoying the journey as it goes along, addressing academic and personal questions that I have, to better support the people I engage with."

"I'm good at what I do, and I say that with no humility," Ruiz-Whalen proudly proclaims. "Women need to have the confidence to say that. Sure, there are things I can get better at, but I'm good at what I do."

Her goal is to be a changemaker. Now, she says she's using this time as a springboard for her next adventure, calling herself a "forever learner, a forever collaborator, a forever facilitator."

"A lot of the work I do focuses on the teachers," she says. "The ripple effect - if I train the teachers, the kids will have all this access."