Learning to Teach

Photo Credit: Thomas Lentz

Winter 2017 | Thomas Lentz

If you’re a postdoc like me and want to secure a teaching faculty position, eventually you’re going to find yourself seated in front of a research committee and answering the question “how will you engage undergraduates in your research?”

Even with teaching experience, the answer to this question is not immediately obvious unless you’re well prepared. Assisting in classes or labs, supervising students and lecturing are all worthwhile exercises, but the transition from postdoctoral trainee to faculty leader requires a significantly larger leap.
You wouldn’t be alone if you weren’t sure which career path you wanted to follow, or even whether you wanted to stay in academia, but I’ve been determined to follow the teaching faculty route ever since I started my teaching postdoc position in NC State’s Biotechnology program.

All postdocs are acutely aware of how challenging it is to obtain a faculty position. My approach has been to make myself competitive by building a research program specifically suitable for integrating undergraduate students at institutions such as UNC Asheville, High Point University and Warren Wilson College.

In these institutions, research is secondary to teaching, so approaching my research from a teaching angle rather than a grant and publication-dominant focus has been essential. If you are considering a similar path, perhaps my experiences will help you see how your own research can be adapted to incorporate undergraduate education.

A predominant challenge I faced when developing my teaching-oriented research program was achieving a balance between relevance and resilience; the program had to generate publishable data, but the work had to be suitable for the technical skills of an undergraduate student.

Preparation for becoming a teacher is essentially for those looking to achieve a teaching faculty position,” says Thomas Lentz, “and it goes beyond the classroom experience.

The project at the center of my research program was the ecology and molecular biology of ranaviruses, a group of large double-stranded DNA viruses that infect cold-blooded animals such as reptiles, amphibians and fish. The topic itself is extremely interesting; ranaviruses can be lethal in some species and were responsible for more than half of the extinction events in amphibians that occurred between 1996 and 2001 in the United States.

Although fascinating, as a project for undergraduates ranaviruses presented various problems, the most obvious of which concerned safety and technical ability. Creating a safe and simple project was key to ensuring that the balance between relevance and resilience was maintained.

Accordingly, my first challenge was navigating health and safety. During my search for faculty jobs I realized that not all undergraduate establishments provide the same facilities to ensure adequate safety when working with different biological agents. However, my choice of ranaviruses for the project made safety an easy hurdle to overcome: ranaviruses do not pose much of a threat to humans since they are incapable of infecting humans.

Although more harmful viruses might be of greater appeal to research-intensive projects, the minimal threat posed by ranaviruses made their hazard level suitably low for undergraduate work and therefore a more productive choice for a teaching program. Compensating the research focus for more profitable teaching gives students more freedom and a better learning experience, while simultaneously providing valuable lessons in health and safety.

The limited time and technical proficiency of undergraduate students also proved challenging for the program’s design. As well as possessing little or no research experience, students work through a busy schedule of classes, coursework and exams. Designing a program that could harmonize low work intensity with meaningful scientific contributions was essential. Routine daily work was minimized by using simple systems– a low maintenance cell line, for instance – and all experiment plans were made flexible to suit different schedules and capabilities.

Equipment is also a limitation of undergraduate work. This varies between institutions, but research questions must be designed around the tools available. To encompass a broad range of facilities I ensured my research aims were suitable for a spectrum of equipment, from the very basic to more specialized and expensive.

By providing myself with a broad range of aims I was able to accommodate a variety of different campuses and facilities without compromising the research output. An opportunity to buy more specialist equipment may arise if you secure a faculty position with a startup package, so being able to demonstrate how this technology could benefit the campus would strengthen your project and employment – but be prepared to work without this technology first.

Finally, I considered how to teach in a classroom environment. In a faculty teaching position you will be expected to teach several classes relating to your field of expertise, and most likely be required to develop an entire curriculum. To begin with, integrating the research subject into the classroom material is useful for the students but also demonstrates how your program fits into the primary mission of your target institution. Utilizing your research as a teaching tool allows you to use your expertise to engage your students and help them contribute to publishable data.

For the ranavirus project, as well as taking students on field trips to collect samples I also planned my class teaching to introduce the theory behind the protocols and techniques used in the lab. Not only does this teach the fundamental basics of various topics, ranging from genetics to immunology, these lessons also allow the students to make connections between their class work and their practical research, cementing the entire project into a thorough, interactive learning experience. By steadily encompassing more demanding techniques and principles, the program can be expanded so students have the chance to progress and apply their new, learned knowledge.

Demonstrating that you have the ideas and capability to build a research program around an educational curriculum specific for undergraduates will make you a strong competitor for teaching faculty roles. Undergraduate students are extremely rewarding to work with and capable of performing excellent research with the right program and supervision. Productive research does not always demand high priced equipment and personnel, and it is entirely possible to merge education with a prolific research environment. With careful planning and consideration, a teaching-oriented research program can provide an ideal platform for nurturing the next generation of researchers.