Why I Teach – Jodi Lapidus, PhD

Jodi Lapidus, PhDLast November, five members of the School of Medicine faculty were recognized by their peers for excellence in teaching. This Q&A series profiles recipients of the 2011 “Faculty Excellence in Education Award” and asks them the question, “Why do you teach?”

This month’s Q&A features Jodi Lapidus, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Division of Biostatistics. Dr. Lapidus earned her PhD in mathematics/statistics from the University of New Mexico in 1998, and she joined the OHSU faculty that same year. Her research focuses on statistical methods for epidemiology, design of community intervention trials and proteomics. Her main collaborators include the Child Development and Rehabilitation Center; Center for Biomarker Discovery, Pediatrics; the Center for Health Research at Kaiser Permanente; the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board; and many departments on campus.


Why did you first become attracted to an academic career?

It’s funny. My parents were teachers, and as a young person, I swore that I would never end up like them. What attracted me initially was the cool, cutting-edge research. As I collaborated more and more with a wide variety of investigators in all different fields, I realized I had this ability to effectively convey the mathematical and statistical concepts to others who did not have the same training and background.

Why do you teach?

I have grown to love being in front of a classroom full of students. The chance to convey concepts in new and different ways is extraordinarily satisfying. I like to challenge people and get them to think in different ways.

Have you modeled your teaching style or philosophy on anyone?

I am a firm believer in the philosophy: “Try something. If it doesn’t work, try something else.” An effective teacher must always be aware and be able to adapt—sometimes quite quickly. If I notice, after a course is over, that students did not perform well in certain areas, I change the curriculum for the next year. If I am lecturing and see that my point is not being understood, I change mid-lecture. You have to be really personable and try to engage your audience as much as possible. The more back and forth you’re having, the better.

I also think about my own “a ha” moments as a student and try to keep them in the forefront of my mind as an instructor and mentor. Most often those moments came not in class, but as I was practicing what I learned in class—either as part of homework assignments, or, even after a course had ended. So being available to mentor current and former students is a vital part of the process.  

Are great teachers born, or are they made?

A little of both probably. My dad could really “command a room.” He was a good public speaker and academic lecturer from what I saw and heard from his colleagues and a good role model. However, I was not good at teaching when I started my career. I was naïve, and I came to lectures with three times as many overhead slides as I needed. It took a lot of practice but I fell into it. I keep the reviews of the first course in introductory biostatistics that I taught back in 1992, which were tragic, to remind me to keep improving!  

What are the great challenges to teaching in the 21st century?

The pace at which new statistical methodology is being developed and implemented in the health sciences is quite a challenge. Such a large portion of the methods I use routinely today were not taught when I went to school. That’s good because I never stop being a student—I continually update my own education via a variety of methods—and make sure I can effectively teach those newer methods.


Does the wide-ranging diversity of your students affect how you teach?

As biostatistics faculty, we teach trainees in many disciplines in the health sciences—from laboratory to clinical to population health. Every program we design has to consider this diversity in interests, background and goals of its trainees.

A relatively unique aspect of my teaching activities has been focused on training individuals from native populations—American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. Over the years, I have developed numerous workshops in data management, introductory biostatistics and statistical software for federally-funded native researchers training programs. I keep the training in these seminars and workshops fresh by customizing them with new data and adapting the topics to each audience. This is particularly important with native populations, as relevant examples not only facilitate learning, but likely deal with unique issues that differ from the mainstream.


What do you think education will look like at OHSU in the future?

We’re moving into online courses and programs, and we need to think carefully about them. They will certainly expand our reach by allowing trainees from all over the world to take advantage of the expertise we have here at OHSU. On the whole, I am a fan. There are certainly challenges to consider when developing a curriculum for online, and some students have learning styles that won’t work with an online course. Lately, I have been intrigued by hybrid formats—hybrid courses and even hybrid degree programs that combine online and in-person components.


What advice do you have for people who would like to follow in your path?

Biostatistics is a rewarding field, for both teaching and research. The variety and challenges are many. In fact, the Wall Street Journal recently ranked it among the top careers for the future. Teaching will be part of any collaborative biostatistician’s career—it could be in a formal classroom setting, online or more informal discussions as part of the research process.