The Excitement of the "Lightbulb Moment"
The primary focus of a PhD program at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences is lab research, culminating in a doctoral dissertation. Bench skills, however, aren’t the only focus; students also take didactic courses; learn to evaluate research through journal clubs; hone their presentation skills; and learn how to convey their knowledge in the classroom.
For Lauren Shull, a PhD candidate in the Molecular Microbiology program, the program’s teaching requirement – TAing for an introductory microbiology course for students in the Medical School – was a gateway to an interest she didn’t know she had.
“The more I got involved with teaching assignments – which, at the beginning, were minimal – the more I liked it,” Shull said. “TAing that introductory class led me to keep chasing more teaching experiences, and eventually make teaching part of my career goals.” Shull is now hoping to eventually find a position where she can combine research and teaching, preferably at an undergraduate-focused institution.
Laura Markey, a recent graduate of the Microbiology program, first taught as an instructor for a Microbiology lab course. Fond memories of undergrad helped her connect with the assignment.
“I like that teaching a lab is fun – it’s for people who are going to be in medical professionals, so they have to learn about antibiotics, but you do that by having them swab their noses,” Markey said. “Biology labs were what got me interested in microbiology as an undergrad; it feels like a small miracle every time you swab something that looks clean and find it’s covered in bacteria that you can grow.”
After their initial experiences, Shull and Markey both went on to teach more. Markey was a teaching assistant for the Introduction to Microbiology course offered to MD and Master of Biomedical Science (MBS) students, while Shull became the lead TA for the introductory course. She also spent two years teaching for the Pathway to the PhD program: an introduction to graduate research for undergraduates at UMass Boston run by Microbiology professor Aimee Shen.
“It was really cool, because I basically took my own thesis research and used that to design a weeklong laboratory curriculum,” Shull said. “You teach the students not only lab skills – how to pipette, lab safety, things like that – but experimental design, how to actually carry out an experiment and interpret the results, and presentation skills. It’s really cool that it’s all encompassed in one teaching experience.”
In recognition of her dedication to teaching while in graduate school, Lauren was a 2018 recipient of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences’ Norman I. and Susan G. Krinsky Excellence in Teaching Award. In 2020, Keith Eidell, a PhD candidate in the Immunology program, was nominated for the same award.
While Markey’s teaching experience was focused on students in the MD and MBS programs, and Shull taught both medical students and undergraduates, Eidell’s first assignment was teaching first-year PhD students. Later, he spent four years as a discussion group leader for Dr. Peter Brodeur’s class on medical immunology.
“For graduate students, learning the details of a particular mechanism is really important,” Eidell said. Teaching students in the MD and MBS programs required a different approach: “That course is very case-based; the students are given an example of a patient coming into an office exhibiting some type of symptoms, and they think about what might be going on immunologically. They need to know high-level things for their board exams: a mechanism about a drug, or a pathology.”
For Eidell, who was interested in teaching partially to improve his communication skills, having to tailor his knowledge to a particular student population was valuable experience. “Teaching people who don’t know what you know, who are starting at ground zero on a particular topic, is really important,” he said. “You can’t just throw a bunch of facts at them right away; you have to teach in a progression, so they can grasp the concepts and go from there. Learning to do that was a great opportunity for me to work on communication and presentation skills.”
Eidell wasn’t the only one who felt that teaching benefited his scientific skills. “I was a little surprised by how much teaching reinforced my own knowledge and expertise in my day-to-day work,” Shull said. She also felt that teaching expanded her knowledge in different directions: “I’ll teach on phages, for example, which have a super long history. So I’ll get to teach about the history of that topic, and all the awesome scientists who were involved and how the research came together. You don’t get to think about that at the bench, but you do in front of a class.”
Markey had similar feelings. “Part of doing a PhD is that you gain more and more knowledge in a specific subject area. You become an expert on a very narrow thing,” she said. “Teaching was a nice opportunity to learn more broadly about medical microbiology, to read about all these other medically relevant microbes and how they interact with people, which I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise.”
Markey also enjoyed the opportunity to make personal connections with and learn from faculty. “With Claudette Gardel, for example, you can sit in on a lecture and watch her engage a classroom and pull all the students along with her,” she said. “She’s a real inspiration, and someone I wouldn’t have gotten to work with otherwise.”
For Shull, who recently taught a course on microbiology at Roxbury Community College, being a student in Boston has been a great opportunity. “On a medical school campus it might seem, at first glance, like there’s not a lot of teaching to be done,” she said. “But there are lots of opportunities. Even if you have to leave Tufts, you can just walk down the street and someone might want you to give a talk, or even teach a whole class at a community college.”
While Shull, Markey, and Eidell had different teaching assignments and got different things from the experience, they all agreed on one point: the most rewarding aspect of teaching was the moment a student understood a new concept or improved their performance in class.
“My favorite thing about teaching was seeing the excitement of the medical students wanting to learn more about immunology, to really get into the mechanisms and the nitty-gritty details of how things worked,” Eidell said. “They had a genuine interest in how immune cells worked, beyond just what they needed to know for their exams.”
“I ran review sessions,” Markey said, “and I saw the same students every week. It’s really rewarding to watch someone who one week doesn’t understand something, and then gets a really good score on the exam.” Shull agreed, describing the “lightbulb moment” when a student understands a new concept. It was an experience she had a number of times teaching at RCC. “The students had no experience with microbiology, so to watch them grasp a new concept and get more confident with it, it’s my favorite feeling.”