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Sunday, April 21, 2024 — Houston, TX

Colette Nicolaou on love, learning and lecture

nicolaou-courtesy-of-colette-nicolaou-web
Courtesy Colette Nicolaou

By Noah Berz     3/26/24 10:49pm

In 2011, Colette Nicolaou left her home in Los Angeles — along with her family, her friends and a job she loved — and followed a boy to Houston. She knew no one and her psychologist license wasn’t valid in Texas. She did it for love, Nicolaou said. Soon after her arrival in Texas, she married her now-husband.  

“It worked out, thank goodness,” Nicolaou, a lecturer in Rice’s psychological sciences department, said. “We had been dating for a number of years and it was time to be in the same city, so I thought, ‘I’ll come out here, I’ll try it, I’ll see what it’s like.’”

Nicolaou was born to Greek immigrants in San Diego. She and her three younger brothers had a close relationship growing up, and family remains a major part of her life. 



“I come from a big fat Greek family,” Nicolaou said. “Knowing me … is like really knowing my family, because they’re just such a big part of me.”

Nicolaou graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in biology and medical anthropology before earning her masters in physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University. She was well on her way to pursuing a career in medicine, but one fateful Georgetown lecture changed her mind. 

“I had a lecture during my masters about schizophrenia, which is this potentially devastating disorder that has this very strong genetic component to it … but that also has this fascinating environmental component,” Nicolaou said. “I thought, ‘Let me learn a little bit more about this.’”

Nicolaou had shown no interest in psychology as an undergraduate — in fact, as an undergraduate, she hated her university’s own introduction to psychology lecture. Years later, Nicolaou completed her psychology post-baccalaureate in one year, taking classes at multiple universities in Southern California simultaneously, and finally went on to earn a second master’s degree and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Drexel University. 

Nicolaou was appointed to Rice’s psychological sciences teaching faculty in Spring 2011, after Sarah Burnett, now professor emeritus of psychological sciences at Rice, invited her to give a guest lecture in her Health Psychology class. Since then, Nicolaou has received several accolades for her student-centered teaching methodology, including the Sarah Burnett Teaching Prize in the Social Sciences in 2019 and the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching in 2018, 2020 and 2022. Despite her success as an educator, Nicolaou said she still holds true to her training as a clinician. 

“If someone asks me [about] my profession, I still say psychologist, because I still feel as though that’s what I am,” Nicolaou said. “I’m not seeing patients now … but I still get to form these great relationships.”

Forming relationships has been an integral part of Nicolaou’s teaching career. Her trademark class is PSYC 101, popular for undergraduates of all majors with 220 students in her spring 2024 sections. She gives out her personal phone number at the beginning of each semester, and when she bumps into a student she knows, she’s eager to hear what they’ve been up to since they last talked. 

“If one of her students is sick, [Nicolaou] will give the whole lecture again to one student to make sure they don’t get behind,” Sriya Kakarla, a PSYC 101 teaching assistant, said.

“The first step of therapy is the rapport and the connection that you have with the patient. I think it’s the same in a classroom,” Nicolaou said. “For me to be able to teach you anything, we’ve got to have a good relationship, you have to trust me, I have to trust you … It’s all relationships.”

Nicolaou said she gets her students excited about the course by integrating personal experiences into the lesson. For example, instead of listing symptoms in a Powerpoint presentation, she’ll call on students to share their own stories. In a lecture about taste buds, she had students stand in front of the class and bite down on test strips to demonstrate supertaster sensitivity. 

“When we talk about mental illness in my class, I just ask students about who’s had a panic attack, and they raise their hand and they talk about their symptoms,” Nicolaou said. “Then I flip the slide and all the symptoms they just said are on my slide. Would you rather hear me list off a bunch of symptoms, or would you rather have your peers share their personal stories?”

Nicolaou is also a founding member of the Teachers Interest Group, a coalition of teaching faculty in the psychological sciences department which meets regularly to discuss the challenges of teaching at the university level. As a non-tenure track faculty member, Nicolaou has no research responsibilities on campus, thus teaching more and larger classes than most tenure track professors do.

“We would prefer to have classes of 10 to 15, but obviously in psychological sciences that isn’t always possible,” Sandy Parsons, director of undergraduate studies in psychological sciences, said. “We talk a lot about how we make sure that the classes are maximally interactive, and have lots of great experience and experiential learning components.

“Dr. Nicolaou spends a lot of time thinking about having very engaging, interesting, research infused lectures,” Parsons, a close friend and colleague of Nicolaou’s, continued. “Her [lecture] slides are just unparalleled. Whenever she comes and does a guest talk in one of my classes … I know that my slides are going to be embarrassing next to hers because hers are so spectacular.”

Parsons has worked alongside Nicolaou since she was first appointed. Over the years, they bonded over their shared experiences with motherhood and at campus events like Pancakes for Parkinsons and Camp Kesem. Parsons said she admires how Nicolaou can prioritize her husband and three kids while also caring deeply for her students. 

“She seems to be able to be available to students in ways that I think is just phenomenal,” Parsons said. “I have never heard a student complain that they had trouble getting a hold of her … I think that is uniquely something fantastic about Colette.”



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