Teaching experience

Teaching statement

I have a diverse teaching background which includes both traditional classroom teaching and more informal instruction. As a graduate student, I was a teaching assistant for three courses at the University of Chicago. The first was a graduate course on grant-writing and professional development, in which I helped students develop research ideas as grant applications. The second was an ecology and evolution class required for biology majors. In this course, I taught a lab section, developing short lectures, running and troubleshooting labs, and grading assignments, as well as writing and grading exam questions and helping students with lecture material. Third was a biogeography class in which I assisted with lectures and labs, led seminar-style discussions, and wrote and graded exam questions. I have given invited guest lectures and labs in courses on conservation genetics, evolution, biogeography, mammalogy, and molecular evolution at the University of Chicago and University of Alaska Fairbanks, as well as being a discussion leader for a graduate biogeography seminar at UAF. My teaching evaluations have generally been positive, although students have also pointed out ways in which my teaching could improve, suggestions I have tried to incorporate in subsequent classes. I have found that I really enjoy teaching, and that nothing is quite as satisfying as watching a student suddenly “get it” and make a connection or understand an elusive concept.
In addition to these courses, in which my students were almost all biology majors or graduate students, I participated for three years as a tutorial leader for Northwestern University’s Science and Engineering in Research and Teaching Synthesis (SERTS) program. Each year, I worked with a small group of undergraduate non-science majors taking an introductory class on evolution, and used my own research and the Field Museum’s research collections to teach them about the role of research in science. In one tutorial, I asked students to choose their favorite mammal and find it in the collections using what I’d taught them about the museum the previous week. Once they’d found the right cabinet, I asked them to use the skins and skeletons in front of them to tell me (and their classmates) something about the animal and its biology and ecology. These students’ previous exposure to science had generally been memorizing facts; they thought science was dry, dull, and boring, and it was great fun to watch their preconceptions dissolve as they realized what research science is really about. At the same time, I had the chance to show them what goes on behind the scenes in natural history museums and get them thinking about the connection between science and the museum exhibits they were used to seeing. As they opened specimen cases and examined skulls from our teaching collection close up, I watched them go from bored to fascinated by a side of museums they’d never seen before. My SERTS students may forget the details they learned about mammalian evolution, but I think that they’ll remember some of what they learned about specimens, collections, and research whenever they visit a science museum. It can be frustrating to teach students who begin by thinking a class is certain to be boring, but I relish the particular challenges involved in teaching non-scientists and helping them overcome their negative stereotypes about the sciences.
The diverse backgrounds of students I’ve taught has helped develop my sense of what does and does not work with different groups. As an instructor, my goal is not just to teach facts but to help my students develop their intuition and figure out how to approach other scientific problems. I therefore teach the process of scientific discovery, and integrate research into teaching at all levels. Research exercises that involve active investigation are part of my approach to teaching science at all levels and to both scientists and nonscientists. I have found that labs and other hands-on activities serve several purposes, both for the students and for me as an instructor. They help students see how science itself works, in a way that reading research papers and listening to lectures never can, and they reinforce lectures by encouraging students to use what they’ve learned, not just remember it until the next test. By making the students more engaged and active, they also help me determine what concepts are proving particularly difficult. Often, the result seems to be happier and more successful classes; some students have told me that they initially dreaded labs but eventually found them to be the most valuable part of their science courses. Two years ago, for a class on molecular evolution, I designed a computer lab on phylogenetic networks in which students experimented with software and methods using their own research data. As I worked with each student, I watched them connecting the lab to the concepts we had discussed in an earlier lecture; now, I’m gratified to see some of the same students incorporating network methods into their theses, publications, and presentations.
Writing and communication skills are critical in all fields, and I believe that requiring good writing of all students helps them no matter what their majors or career goals. As an instructor, I therefore intend to develop coursework that addresses writing, speaking, and communication skills as well as core scientific concepts. I have experience assisting students with writing from teaching assistantships that involved reading and commenting on student papers, as well as providing informal advice on manuscripts and proposals to other students as a senior graduate student and postdoc. Despite the time required to make worthwhile comments, I have encouraged my students to submit rough drafts of final papers and projects, knowing that giving them a chance to incorporate my comments into later drafts will help them think about how to improve their work and develop their writing skills. Oral communication skills are also crucial to scientists, and I have actively sought out opportunities to help students develop these skills as an evaluator of student presentations for the American Society of Mammalogists and as a mentor for graduate, undergraduate, and high school projects in my advisor’s lab at UAF.
I have genuinely enjoyed my formal teaching experience, but I hope that my future teaching opportunities are not limited to traditional classroom settings. As a senior graduate student and as a postdoc I’ve also encountered many opportunities for informal, individualized teaching and mentoring. My first postdoc is in a rapidly expanding department with more master’s and beginning doctoral students than senior students, and in the past two years I’ve spent hours talking to students in my advisor’s lab and others about their research and how to shape their ideas and develop their careers. As a regular participant in a seminar-style journal club I have also tried to help keep discussions general enough for students who are new to a particular field while posing questions that challenge those who are more advanced. During a field collecting trip in Cambodia in 2007, I also had the opportunity to work with and help mentor a Cambodian graduate student, teaching him about bats and helping him develop ideas for his thesis research. I feel that my postdoctoral experience has enhanced my skills as a mentor, which will be integral to future advising and teaching responsibilities.