“9 is arrogant”, he calmly tells me as if we’re on the same page.
“Why do you think that?” I ask, trying to wrap my head around this alien concept.
“Obviously it has the right to be, but I don’t know the exact reason.”
“No, there’s nothing obvious about it, but what are some other examples?” I intriguingly prod this sophomore who has stayed around after class to discuss with me the recent discovery of his rare form of synesthesia. He quickly rattles them off.
The grades are in and my first solo teaching experience is complete. Starting back in January, I embarked on a 4 month teaching odyssey at Lewis & Clark, designing, organizing and delivering a PSY280 class called “Brain & Behavior”, which can essentially be thought of as an introduction to neuroscience. Even before beginning at OHSU, I knew that I wanted teaching to play a role in my future career in science. So why not get started now? Of course, OHSU doesn’t have the undergraduate population for which our mentors, on one knee (or whip), send us off to fend for ourselves teaching their intro courses or grading their exams. Instead, luck, motivation, and more luck enabled me to score mini teaching opportunities across Portland which culminated last fall in being accepted as a visiting adjunct course instructor in the L&C Psychology Department. Yep, it came with an office… that had a window! Note: both are rare luxuries in the graduate student world.
“7 is sinister… the kind of friend who would stab you in the back.”
It was a Friday in mid-November when I found out I had received the teaching position. To celebrate, I came home, opened a bottle of wine and went through my old neuroscience textbooks, skimmed through the pop-culture neuroscience books I’ve acquired over the years, and gathered any remaining Scientific American Minds that had somehow not been replaced by the countless issues of Science that are clogging my shelves. What grew was a list of topics, sub-topics, and well, just cool facts that I wanted to build my class around. Soon, this list would be cut in half, and then half again (yes, neuroscience is a HUGE field). Do I want to spend time talking about retinal implants? Yes! Do I have time? Probably not. It’s a good thing my wine-potentiated excitement carried me through topic generation, because there was no time to waste prepping for lectures. For the next two months, there wasn’t a day that I didn’t work, in some shape or form, on class lectures. I would be teaching twice per week (1.5 hours each class) from mid-January to early May, and I quickly learned that my efficiency was approximately 5-6 hours of prep for every one hour of presentation. And this was material I already knew! What did I get myself into?
Any concerns regarding my decision to embark down this unfamiliar road were alleviated immediately on day 1. I found the typical Lewis & Clark student to be highly intuitive and engaged. The degree of discussion generated within the classroom was like hitting a 300-yard drive straight down the fairway, it makes you eager to come back with the hope of doing it all over again. Despite class attendance being optional, rarely did I have more than 2/3/4 students absent for a given class period. While the class’s dedication as a whole built a solid foundation, it was the individual personalities that made teaching an immensely rewarding and unforgettable experience.
“6 is feminine, athletic.”
I’ll never forget Batman (that’s how he signed his name on all his exams and quizzes). Entering the weekend, I had just finished the second of two lectures on the neuroscience of consummatory behavior (i.e. feeding and thirst), and Batman seemed to be particularly intrigued (he remained awake through the entire class). The following class period, Batman approached me looking slightly disheveled, and being polite, I inquired about his weekend.
“I didn’t eat for 48 hours. It was rough.”
“Excuse me?” I alarmingly reply. “Why would you do that?” Now feeling guilty that there may be some religious reason behind this madness.
“I wanted to go through different stages of hunger and see how it affected my brain. You know, relate it to what we’ve been learning.” Okay, now I’m just impressed. To me, this would be hell. I can barely make it to lunch without completely forfeiting my attention to thoughts of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my backpack. Instead, Batman’s mind was on science, discovery, and experience. How could you not appreciate the dedication?
“So how do you feel now?” I asked.
“Hungry.” He rapidly replied. “I haven’t felt full in a while.”
“And why do you think that is?”
His eyes break their contact as he thinks silently for a few seconds. “My leptin levels are probably still low and my lateral hypothalamus is active.”
The guy deserves an A.
The light-bulb moments that are obtained through hands-on discovery or through refocused examination of the material are like an intracranial self-stimulation of the mesolimbic dopamine pathway for a teacher. Once you see a student get one, you want it to happen again and again. But it’s just as good when you witness one’s mind being blown by the realization of some unknown concept or fact that could perhaps drastically change their view of the world. Teaching neuroscience lends sufficient opportunity to witness this phenomenon. However, if/when it was to occur, I really wanted to observe the massive physical visceral response I had built up in my head. Challenge accepted; I wasted little time getting started. I showed beautiful images of the brain (e.g. the “Brainbow,” which my students were quick to point out were taken by a recent faculty hire at L&C, drastically reducing the effect I had hoped it would have); I compared images of the neuronal landscape with images taken by Hubble telescope; I discussed case studies of trauma patients performing remarkable tasks, impressive feats of memory, neuralprosthetics, epigenetics, I even discussed the mindblown protein involved in synaptic plasticity. Did these blow minds? Maybe, but whatever effect it had was contained to the occasional “whoa.” Then came the lecture on neuronal communication and the action potential. As an electrophysiologist, I find this topic fascinating and its application can be an incredibly useful tool for understanding how the brain functions. With that being said, I didn’t give it great odds for being a mind-blowing lecture. But everyone loves an underdog. After my introduction, I dove into ionic gradients (potassium on the inside, sodium on the outside, etc.). That clearly wasn’t going to blow anyone’s mind that day (ever?). I then progressed to describing the stages of the action potential, beginning with the neuronal membrane reaching threshold and the opening of voltage-gated sodium channels. Sitting in the front of the class was a young man with a great mustache (truly, a great mustache). As I described this process, his forehead crinkled while he contemplated what I was telling him. Then, his eyes opened wide and his hand shot up.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” He started, looking quite alarmed. “So you’re telling me, that all the thoughts going through my head,” pausing for emphasis, “everything that makes us who we are, are really just due to the movement of a bunch of sodium ions?”
“Yep.” I responded, a smirk across my face. This is what I had been looking for.
“No way!” almost falling back off his chair. The class broke into hysterics.
“8 is the hero, the protagonist in any novel.”
Class ended as a celebration. Students gave their own presentations on a neuroscience topic of their choosing, utilizing the foundation that they had acquired throughout the term. Synesthesia, Greek for “together” and “sensation” where stimulation of one cognitive or sensory pathway automatically stimulates another (e.g. seeing a particular number makes you see it in a specific color [9 is red] or numbers take on human personalities [9 is sinister]) was presented by a young woman with grapheme-color synesthesia, autism spectrum disorder was presented by a young man with Asperger’s syndrome. The many topics were presented passionately and comprehensively, suggesting that they did indeed learn something during the term. The sense of accomplishment was warming; from my biased perspective, I like to believe that I aided in their growth as students, critical thinkers, and informed members of society who will use their knowledge to filter through the overwhelming media influence over our perspectives on health and science. But deep down, I realize that their growth was self-driven, for I learned that as a teacher, your role is to be merely a facilitator. You can talk until you’re blue and they may learn nothing, or you can talk little and they can learn greatly. Throughout this process, the most important thing I learned was what it means to “teach.” Teaching doesn’t equate to talking, or lecturing, but instead, directing someone to form connections and make their own “discoveries.” Because let’s face it, does it really matter if they don’t remember the thalamic nucleus where optic nerve fibers terminate before heading back towards V1 in the occipital lobe (it’s the lateral geniculate nucleus for those keeping score)? Of course not. However, through the critical assessment of material throughout the term, being able to detect inconsistencies, determination of experimental validity in primary literature, synthesizing large amounts of scientific information and presenting it back to an audience, that’s where the substantive growth develops and lasts. No doubt they taught me as much as I taught them.
Okay, now challenge complete.