Image: Erica P. Johnson
They come from disparate parts of the world and study disciplines as diverse as diabetes research, protein chemistry, and mammalian development. Yet David Lynn, Martin H. Johnson, and Peter Stralfors share a common bond: For each, teachers inspired his life's work.
As a child, Lynn used his chemistry set to concoct explosive potions. But when it came to choosing a career path in college, Lynn admits he was as bewildered as the next student until a chemistry professor gave him direction. "I fell in love with the course and my fate was pretty much sealed," says Lynn, a professor of biology and chemistry at Emory University in Atlanta. "One professor found the right button. He was an excellent teacher."
Across the ocean, Johnson arrived at Cambridge intent upon becoming a physician. During a third-year physiology class, Martin discovered he enjoyed the intellectual challenge of research. Yet, he didn't abandon his medical aspirations until an anatomy professor captured his imagination. "It was the catalyst that changed my career," says Martin, professor of reproductive sciences at the University of Cambridge.
Science did not engage Stralfors until he entered college. His biochemistry professor made the subject so satisfying that it seemed a natural path to follow in graduate school. "I was happy doing science," says Stralfors, a cell biologist at Linkopings University in Sweden.
The evidence that scientists in the classroom can influence student career choices remains unconfirmed, according to Eugene Rice, director of the forum on faculty roles and rewards at the American Association for Higher Education in Washington, DC. Nevertheless, Lynn, Johnson, Stralfors, and countless others aver that educators lead students into new frontiers. "Teaching ... forces scientists to put research in a larger context, and that can become a source of inspiration," Rice says.
ENERGY AND COMMITMENT REQUIRED Nearly 100 years ago, 18 American universities required their scientists to teach in the classrooms rather than work exclusively in isolated research institutes as was then popular, Rice says. Teaching means spending from 20% to 50% of one's work life away from the laboratory. And classroom work can be arduous and draining. "The secret to getting both done is you have to have a lot of energy, commitment, and want to do it," Johnson says. "And you need a lot of support both at home and at work."
The growing demands on researchers' time has led some universities to find ways to ease the workload. Arizona State University shifts staff requirements to allow researchers approaching breakthroughs to take time off from teaching. But even as universities try to lessen the load, scientists are showing a renewed interest in instruction, says Terry Woodin, program director at the National Science Foundation division of graduate education. As evidence, Woodin points to the increasing number of teaching courses and seminars offered by scientific societies at their annual meetings. "I think there is an increasing interest in teaching and that scientists feel it is their responsibility to do it," Woodin says. "I think teaching is good for scientists because they start talking about their field and what they are doing and they get wildly excited about it and so do the students."
Teaching can promote both learner and teacher. Eager apprentices can be the jumper cables to recharge a tired senior scientist. "Doing research is so much working against the tide," Stralfors says. "You get bogged down by failures in research. It's nice to do something that works. It's a way to find energy for your research."
As in many countries, in Sweden, university scientists must teach. Stralfors has learned to prepare thoroughly and listen to students. "I don't ever think any questions are stupid or irrelevant," he says. "Also, if I don't know the answer, I don't pretend to know or come up with something. ... If you freely admit that you don't know something, your authority with students increases a lot."
Forced to teach, Stralfors has encountered an unexpected benefit. His memory sometimes needs a boost, and lessons oblige him to review his materials. That has led him to discoveries that would remain locked in pure research. "When I teach I almost never use an overhead projector or slides," he explains. "I use the blackboard or the white board. That gives a reasonable pace to the lecture."
Photo: Courtesy of Peter Stralfors
SPARKING THE FIRES OF INSPIRATION Stralfors knows some senior colleagues view teaching as an encumbrance and advises young researchers to ignore such complaints. "If you don't see it as a burden, but rather as something exciting in its own right with its own satisfaction, then it is easy," he says.
That satisfaction often comes from watching a student's discovery ignite into a lifetime passion for science. "If you're doing cutting-edge bench research and you have the opportunity to take what you know into the classroom and say 'let me tell you where we are, let me model what you can do', that is exciting stuff," says Richard Weibl, editor for Science Next Wave, an online magazine for young scientists. "The content has real value when you bring it into the teaching world. That can be motivation to you as a learner or a future scientist."
US universities too often miss an opportunity to inspire, Lynn says. These institutions mistakenly assign first-year graduate students to teach first-year undergraduates. "The freshman graduate student is worried about what graduate school is all about," Lynn says. "He doesn't care about teaching."
After more than 18 years in the classroom, Lynn still marvels over the topics that engage undergraduates. "They are green and naive and they get excited about all kinds of things you don't expect," says Lynn, who is working on developing skeletons other than nucleic acids for autonomous information storage and replication. "To see that excitement, it is exciting to at least be a part of it."
While Lynn prefers graduates to undergraduates, both work in his research lab. "It's a mentoring process," he says. "These are bright people and it is really fun working with bright, enthusiastic people. I just bump them in one direction ever so slightly."
His scheme for launching student- scientists? He simply shows how much he loves his work. "That's my best secret," he says. "That's all it takes in life." Love was all it took for Johnson when he first signed on at Cambridge. Faced with a choice between Cambridge and a research center, Johnson chose the university and embraced the opportunity to teach. Given that same choice today, however, Johnson's decision might be different. "I wouldn't encourage people to take a university position unless they really had their eyes open and knew what they wanted to get out of life," says Johnson, who has spent the last six years studying the developmental timing mechanism in mammals. "The system forces me to that conclusion. I see too many young people burned out."
Johnson's stint as a department head brought him cranium-to-cranium with burnout. He spent 50% of his time completing administrative work and the other 50% on his lab and teaching. His current schedule dedicates 60% to the lab and 40% to teaching and preparation. "That is what I fight to maintain," Johnson says of his schedule. Johnson respects his charges and resists writing off anyone as lost or hopeless. If students are bored, he knows why. "When you teach you are performing," he says. "When you are on stage you know you have your audience, and the next line you know winds them up or brings them down. It's the same with teaching. You are trying to keep them interested. When it works it is very rewarding."
Still, Johnson says, the gratification he gets from teaching pales in comparison with his own moments of discovery in the laboratory. "It is a unique moment because it is going on between you and some data or some matter or down the microscope," he says. "The reward with teaching is quantifiably different from what you get in the lab."
Bob Calandra (email@example.com) is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.