This summer and fall has been a tumultuous season: I moved halfway across the country to start my first tenure-track job, and promptly embarked on the challenges of unpacking my house while setting up my research lab and preparing to teach two brand-new classes to a brand-new group of students I’d never met before. It’s been a period of happy chaos.
One of the biggest adjustments from my visiting-faculty life to my tenure-track life has been the new need for me to balance teaching and research. For the past two years, I’ve been focusing almost exclusively on building my teaching skills, conducting research only during the summer. In my new position at a small liberal-arts college, teaching remains at the heart of my job, but it’s again important for me to build and maintain an active research profile. Because I work with cell culture and neonatal rodents, and because I want to offer research experiences to students during the academic year, I’m now running my lab year-round while teaching three lab sections per semester. I’d already learned over the past few years that my research can inform my teaching, giving me plenty of interesting examples and anecdotes to share with my classes. Now I’m working on the next step of learning to successfully function as a teacher/scholar: developing strategies to merge my research life with my teaching life. Here’s what I’d suggest based on my experiences so far:
- Do the crucial groundwork yourself. I’m incorporating an ongoing research project on neuronal differentiation into a neurobiology course this fall. However, my research students and I are plating the cells, and making and sterilizing the proliferation and differentiation media, ourselves. This lets the lab students get valuable experience working with cultured cells (on the first lab day of this project, they replace the proliferation medium with the differentiation medium and harvest a plate of control cells), but is relatively low-risk.
- Simplify the experiments. Many of my experiments require multiple expensive growth factors to be administered at precise time points. I’m paring down my teaching lab differentiation protocol to a single-step protocol, using inexpensive reagents and only one media change. This still gives the students an authentic experience, but saves time, trouble, and money.
- Focus on different aspects of your research in different classes. In my neurobiology class, students will be spending a great deal of time examining the morphology of their differentiated and undifferentiated cells using fluorescence microscopy. However, for a developmental class next semester, I’m planning on using the same cell line but running an inquiry-based lab, asking students to predict the outcome of various differentiation protocols based on their knowledge of developmental signaling pathways. This means that the students and I can continue to benefit from the interplay between research and teaching, but students who take multiple classes with me won’t be doing the same project (or even similar projects!) for each class. This strategy might also help students draw links between material presented in different courses, but connected by labs using the same model system.
- Fit the research-based project to the class. My upper-level students generally know how to pipet, how to use a microscope, and how to comport themselves around scientific equipment. Students in classes at the 100- and 200-level can’t really be expected to work with cells in culture, or to pipet accurately enough to perform qPCR. However, examples drawn from your research can still be used even at the introductory levels. Fixed and stained slides of my neuron-like cells can show introductory students some key differences between mitotic cells and cells in Go Genomic DNA and cDNA from my cell lines could form the basis of a lab teaching budding molecular biologists about the differences between PCR and RT-PCR.
Incorporating your scientific research into your teaching isn’t necessarily a question of waiting for the stars to align until you’re offered the opportunity to teach an upper-level class in your exact area of research with only 6 enrolled students. Instead, you may very well have the potential to pull the stars into alignment yourself, designing labs that draw on the science that excites you the most, and connecting that passion to diverse sub-disciplines within physiology and biology.
Kat Bartlow received her Ph.D. in Neurobiology from the University of Pittsburgh. Currently, she is an assistant professor in the Biology department at Lycoming College, in Williamsport, PA. Her current courses include Human Anatomy for majors and non-majors, Neurobiology, and Developmental Biology; she’s looking forward to developing an upper-level neurophysiology course so she can rejoin the world of physiology education. Her research focuses on dopaminergic neuronal development and neurotransmission within the dorsal striatum. She is also interested in using undergraduate-led physiology and neuroscience outreach as a teaching tool.