01/12/11 Portland, Ore.
Nine members of the School of Medicine faculty were recently recognized by their peers for excellence in teaching. This Q&A series profiles each of the recipients and asks the question, “Why do you teach?”January's Q&A features Suzanne Mitchell, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Behavioral Neuroscience, who was nominated by the Executive Committee of the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience
Dr. Mitchell’s research examines whether the elevated impulsivity observed in drug-users existed prior to their drug use, or is a consequence of the neuroadaptations due to drug use. Her lab investigates whether different genotypes are associated with impulsive behavior by comparing impulsivity in drug-naïve selected lines and inbred strains of mice and rats. She also examines whether different levels of impulsivity predict responses the first time mice and rats are exposed to drugs of abuse, like alcohol, nicotine and methamphetamine. In addition, her research examines the basic neural processes involved in decision making, including impulsive and risky decision making, using magnetic resonance imaging in people.
Q&A with Suzanne Mitchell, PhD
How did you first become attracted to an academic career?
My primary interest was the opportunity to do research. I was first hooked during my undergraduate degree and I’ve stayed hooked because it’s terrifically exciting on those rare occasions when you are the first person to know something. I chose to stay in the academic world rather than moving to industry – really the only avenue for researchers. I do find it stimulating, however, when I meet industry researchers, during the Human Investigations Program course, for instance. Their training encourages us to think about things in a different way.
What do your students teach you?
I am always learning from them, but their greatest contributions are the ways that their feedback makes me a better educator. My job as a teacher is to help my students understand the links between the various facts and experiences they accumulate during the course of their study. If they don’t make those connections, they are telling me something very important about my teaching, and where I need to be clearer about what those connections are.
Did you have an influential teacher after whom you modeled your own teaching?
Yes – I sat in on a class taught by a former Harvard professor, William Baum, who used a Socratic method of teaching that was phenomenally successful. The students were discovering the information for themselves, and it was very compelling as a teaching style. It takes a lot of confidence to be able to do that as the class can sometimes head off into areas you did not anticipate in your preparation.
So are great educators like this born, or are they made?
I think educators start at both points. My mother is a school teacher and she has this instinctive ability to immediately think of just the right example to illustrate her point, or come up with new learning-related activities off the cuff. There are however, for the rest of us, some programs that do a great job of training future faculty. The Masters of Science for Teachers in College Teaching at the University of New Hampshire is one example I can think of, which is part of the Preparing Future Faculty initiative.
What are the top challenges for educators today at OHSU?
Students come to us with a wide diversity of backgrounds – academic backgrounds in particular. As we implement translational and inter-disciplinary teams, this variety could become an issue. A student from one discipline, for instance, does not necessarily come to us with the scientific vocabulary to study and work with students from another discipline. We may be able to help this situation by creating materials which summarize vocabulary and critical facts. We’re also facing a struggle between generalization versus specialization. I think that having a generalist education is a good thing—a broader knowledge base gives you more to pin new information on to. However, many of our students want to be done with classes and move onto specialization. Other than explaining why a more generalist approach might be useful and using examples illustrating the success of this strategy, it’s hard to imagine how this generalization-specialization tension will not lead to some friction.
What do you think education will look like at OHSU in the future?
Teamwork in science will be increasingly important, but having a team implies a group of people with specialist knowledge, each of whom can bring a different dish to the table. A team needs a common language but it also needs specialists. As educators we need to provide both a common language and specialized knowledge for our students. I’m also still struggling with how best to integrate technology into the classroom. I use PowerPoint in my lectures and think that there will always be a place for the lecture, but I like to strike a balance between lecturing and interaction.
How do you continue to learn so that you continue to teach?
I do a lot of reading, and I invite my research staff and students to read with me. I think it’s important to talk things through with people who can suggest approaches or insights that I might miss.