Letter to my trainee-self: translating my research from the bench to…classroom?

I love to read quotes by Greek philosophers. They were wise individuals and did not have access to immediate “knowledge” as we do today thanks to available technologies. After all, the internet would not be created for thousands of years later. What this did afford them the opportunity to do is to engage in what we call critical thinking. It is all they did! Today, their quotes help to keep me grounded; my favorites are the quotes attributed to Aristotle. Aristotle was a scientist, a biologist, an intellectual, and a philosopher, just like us! Yes, it is hard to consider ourselves “philosophers.” However, we are — and among those of us with a Philosophy Doctorate (Ph.D.) represent  2% of the population in the United States (less than 1% worldwide) (OECD, 2021). Earning our doctoral degrees required years, sweat and tears working through graduate training. Most of us have spent countless hours conducting research, analyzing, and interpreting data; our contributions to the field of study are meaningful and novel.

We know a lot of things, so any recent graduate should be ready to land their dream job and hit the ground running, right? Unfortunately, for most trainees this is not the case. The bottom line is that our training did not prepare us for the job, at least not fully prepare for it. In most of the classical doctoral programs in the U.S. you will be trained to be a great research scientist. Chances are you will be teaching, managing lab personnel, and juggling with grant budgets, without any training in pedagogy, human resources, or accounting, respectively. So, how are we supposed to be successful? I wish somebody had told me these things when I was a trainee! I can’t change the past, and I have learned a lot since I was a trainee, so here I am listing some of my learned lessons, using Aristotle’s words of wisdom. This could have helped my younger self, and I am writing this with the hope that my experience helps other young scientists beginning their careers in academia.

The more you know, the less you know

Aristotle was right about this one! The more immersed in your research you are, the more you realize you are missing information. That is, the beauty of research, it never ends, we never know all the answers or mechanisms. No matter what research you are conducting, you are the absolute expert on your study. It is very specific to that one population, system, enzyme, or molecule. Chances are that your first job involves teaching, in some cases a lot of teaching, and it can be intimidating.

Unfortunately, like most of faculty in biomedical sciences, my doctoral studies in physiology didn’t include pedagogy or evidence-based practices in teaching. Yet, most of us are expected to teach high quality courses with large enrollment and be proficient at it. I knew I had a lot to learn, and I wanted to create my identity as an instructor, but I didn’t know how. I had this feeling that I knew a lot of “stuff” about my research and how it could be translated into clinical practice, but not much about teaching physiology!

I dedicated, and I still dedicate long hours and effort to become the best professor I could be, in the classroom, in the lab and in the community. Thankfully, there are resources for you to implement the best evidence-based practices in your classroom:

1-           Join the Teaching section of your professional association. In my case, The American Physiological Society Teaching Section has been my main source of information and training in teaching physiology. “The American Physiological Society Teaching Section promotes excellence in physiology education through educational research and scholarship in physiology.” Most people join other sections because it closely aligns with their research interests. However, you can make the teaching section your secondary or tertiary section and be able to access all of the benefits in training, workshops, mentoring, and generous awards for trainees, early and mid-career, and senior professionals!

2-           Consider attending conferences dedicated to teaching. In my case, attending the APS Institute on Teaching and Learning allowed me to become a better classroom instructor, which changed the trajectory of my career, as I was exposed for the first time to the possibility of conducting research in teaching physiology. Not only did I learn a lot, but also I was able to learn how to incorporate research in teaching into my workplan, increasing productivity and career satisfaction.

3-           Join the newly created Center for Physiology Education. The center was developed with input from more than 500 educators in the field, and it is structured around five interconnected themes: evidence-based teaching practices, inclusive teaching, teaching, and learning integrative physiology, physiology education research and curriculum development.  Together, these components provide a comprehensive approach to advancing physiology education and learning.

4-           Attend as many workshops on teaching as you can! At the University of Louisville, we are fortunate to have UofL Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning, many institutions have similar centers or support for teaching faculty, find yours and attend every workshop possible!

5-           Participate in professional development opportunities for mentoring, depending at what point of your career you are, you can participate as either as a mentee or a mentor, you will be gaining invaluable experience that can be easily transferred to your students in class or research students and trainees in your lab. In my case, I learned a lot about teaching and my mentoring style as a mentor of the Teaching Experiences for Bioscience Educators Fellows and Mentors.

“Those who know, do. Those who understand, teach.”

This is another quote attributed to Aristotle that relates to my teaching philosophy. You can “do” by giving a lecture, or you can teach using critical thinking. In order to teach you have to fully understand the concept, of course! But also, you have to understand the environment, your classroom, department, college and university cultures. To teach, you need to know your students. Not at a personal level necessarily, but understanding the idiosyncrasy of your class is going to be the key for success. Expectations for a class with non-traditional students will be very different than with traditional 18-year-old first year students. You always must know your audience, and how to engage diverse students. You will also learn about your students and community if you are out and engaged. Be out in the community, help or organize science fairs or outreach programs to local schools. Be engaged in your community, this will make you a better teacher too!

To facilitate critical thinking, use data or applied problems. For instance, consider using real life cases to teach mechanisms! After teaching thousands of students, I realized that learning happens by doing, by experimenting, by solving problems. When I teach physiology, I want my students to remember the previously learned system, and the interrelationships among systems. There is nothing better than the work of more seasoned colleagues! The national center for case study teaching in science, now part of the national science teaching association provides thousands of case studies and assignments with the keys and rubrics, that have been previously peer-reviewed with a high level of scrutiny.

Even if teaching is not the core of your identity as a scientist, chances are that at some point you will be teaching trainees, the community, or potential investors, you need to learn how to engage students. Mentoring workshops are very helpful to find your mentoring styles and how to manage your research team. I am going to end this blog with one of my favorite quotes “Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”

1-           OECD. (2021). Educational attainment of 25-64 year-olds (2020).

Dr. Terson de Paleville teaches Advanced Exercise Physiology, Neuromuscular Exercise Physiology, and Human Physiology courses. Her research interests include motor control and exercise-induced neuroplasticity. In particular, Dr. Terson de Paleville has investigated the effects of activity-based therapy on respiratory muscles, trunk motor control and autonomic function in people with chronic spinal cord injury. Additionally, Dr. Terson de Paleville investigate the effectiveness of team-based active learning in physiology courses.

Daniela Terson de Paleville, PhD

Associate Professor

University of Louisville

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