Monday, September 28, 2009

Careers in Teaching

Today I went to a career seminar sponsored by the GDBBS on Careers in Teaching. The Division does a lot of these seminars, and I try to take advantage of them to help combat my natural tendency toward "career planning," which at this stage consists mainly of sticking my fingers in my ears and chanting, "I'm not listening, la la la!" Okay, maybe not that bad, but it is hard to think about where I'll be after getting my PhD, since I've only just started my dissertation research.

Anyway, the seminar featured several terrific speakers. I guess it's not surprising that people who've made a career out of their passion for educating others are engaging and energetic ambassadors for their jobs. It was a pleasure to hear them share their experiences and their enthusiasm.

The first speaker, Dr. Leah Anderson Roesch, is the director of Emory's SIRE program, which is focused on helping Emory undergraduates participate in research. This is something that I feel strongly about, since my own undergraduate research experience made a huge impact on my own decision to become a scientist. I'm really excited whenever the undergrads in my TA course come to me with questions about research opportunities and graduate school. This may partly come from the fact that their interest validates my own life choices, but I think there's more to it than that. Undergraduate research builds confidence, independence, and curiosity. Students who see what it's like to actually work in their chosen field (not just science -- SIRE encompasses every department at Emory, from social sciences to arts and humanities to public health) are more engaged with what they're learning in classes. I truly believe that participation in programs like SIRE can be crucial to a student's educational and personal development. So, basically, I'm a big SIRE cheerleader. (I also hope to apply for one of their Graduate Fellow positions later in my graduate career. So awesome!)

But, I had already known about SIRE before I came to today's seminar. The Fellowships in Research and Science Teaching (FIRST) program, however, was new to me. FIRST is Emory's version of the NIH/NIGMS's Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA) program. Two FIRST fellows, Dr. Brandi Brandon Knight and Dr. LaTonia Taliaferro-Smith, spoke about their experiences with the program. FIRST offers three-year postdoctoral fellowships (so, my own participation would have to wait until the distant postdoctoral future...) that combine traditional research with intensive pedagogical training, mentored teaching, and independent teaching at minority-serving institutions. FIRST's mission is focused on course development using current educational techniques (especially those incorporating new technologies) in an attempt to better engage undergraduates in their classes. The fact that these exceptional teachers go on to work with traditionally under-represented populations of students is especially inspiring. And, of course, FIRST graduates (and graduates from the other 12 IRACDA postdoctoral programs around the country) are well-prepared for teaching-intensive faculty positions at small liberal arts colleges. Plus they still participate in traditional postdoctoral research -- and publish papers -- under the supervision of a PI at their primary institution. Frankly, the whole thing sounds pretty cool, although I'm sure the workload is sizable.

It was great to walk out of an hour-long seminar feeling excited about all the possibilities that lie before me. I may change my mind about undergraduate education later (perhaps after I have to grade my first exams this week...), but in general I think it's great to have these moments of reflection. I'm getting a PhD in neuroscience because I think neuroscience is fascinating, but I also have this dream about making a difference, which sounds great but can be hard to actually spell out in a five-year plan. One way to make a difference is to discover some amazing new scientific truth, of course, and it thrills me each time I uncover a new result that no one has ever seen before. But we can also make a difference through our interactions with other people. Someday my dissertation will be moldering in the stacks of the university library, quaintly out-of-date in the wake of the ever-expanding scientific frontier. But, as the bumper-sticker says (echoed by the many teachers in my family), "to teach is to touch lives forever." A warm and fuzzy sentiment to save up for those lonely nights in the lab.


  1. Great post, Laura!! Many people consider teaching a chore that takes away from time in the lab, but I'm with you. My experience as an undergrad is why I'm here 11 (!) years later, and I can't wait to be a part of that for someone else.

  2. Thanks, Dr Becca! It's been 6 years since I got my first lab job cleaning lobster tanks for Eve Marder. I like to think I've come a long way, but I owe a lot to her and the other members of her lab for believing in me. I definitely want to pay it forward.

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