By Elena Makareeva, PhD
Last fall quarter (September – December 2010), I taught a 300-level undergraduate biochemistry course to budding young scientists and doctors who were conducting their research at the NIH campus. The course covered the biochemistry of proteins, nucleic acids and carbohydrates, in addition to common methods for biomolecule purification and characterization, such as chromatography, spectroscopy, NMR, X-ray, etc. Not only did I enjoy the course because the majority of the material was related to my lab experience, but also because the students were fun!
My students had travelled from Colgate University, located in the village of Hamilton in upstate New York, to participate in biomedical research at NIH. In addition to the biochemistry course, they attended one other class per week, and they spent their remaining time in their labs. All of the students were very much engaged in the course; they openly shared their relevant lab experience, excitement about science, and frustration with current experiments. Three of the total of seven students were applying to a graduate school, and one was in the process of applying to a medical school.
Throughout my postdoctoral training, I have always remained open to new teaching opportunities. When I received an email from the NICHD Deputy Director of Liaison & Training, Brenda Hanning, requesting experienced teachers for an upper-division biochemistry course, I immediately responded with high enthusiasm. Because I had taken advantage of other teaching opportunities at NIH, my application had the required credentials. For instance, before this formal biochemistry course, I participated in the following activities:
- For three years (2007-2009), I served as an instructor in the NICHD team-taught course “Becoming an Effective Scientist: Tools for NICHD Postbaccalaureate Fellows.” This opportunity required a two-week commitment from each instructor.
- For five weeks in 2009, I participated as a leader of a Summer Intern Journal Club, organized by the Office of Intramural Training and Education.
- During 2009-2011, I was an instructor and coordinator of lab activities in Take Your Child to Work Day at NIH.
Even with previous teaching experience, teaching a formal course was a big commitment. The biochemistry course ran from the beginning of September until Christmas. I had two classes a week for 1.5 hours each, totaling 3 hours per week. Each class had a lecture, interactive session, and homework. To monitor students’ understanding of the covered material, I used pre-class tests, and for formal evaluation I had students complete two quizzes, two homework assignments, a presentation in the format of a journal club, a presentation on an individual research project, and a final exam—all of which needed grading!
As you can imagine, bench work was not easy to manage with my teaching schedule. Fortunately, my supervisor, Dr. Sergey Leikin, was very supportive. He understood that teaching a formal class takes a lot of time. In addition to three hours a week of classes, I spent a lot of time reading, preparing lectures and tests, and grading students’ work. So, my major responsibility in the lab was supervising and helping other students on their projects. It worked well!
I have heard many times that teaching takes a ton of time, is exhausting, but can be extremely fun. Teaching this formal course gave me a chance to truly understand what teaching is all about. Not to mention, this teaching experience on my CV likely played a role in getting phone interviews from universities that focus on teaching undergraduates when I was applying to academic positions last year.
If you want a teaching career, teaching a formal course while you are a postdoc is a great start!