Dr. Kate Monzo is a teaching fellow for the Integrated Life Sciences program at the University of Maryland (UMD) and a biology teacher at Montgomery College (MC). Before transitioning into a teaching career, Dr. Monzo worked in Dr. Brant Weinstein’s lab for three years—from 2010 to 2013—as a postdoctoral fellow. While there, she studied mechanisms of lumen formation in sprouting angiogenesis in zebrafish. Check out our Q&A with Dr. Monzo to learn more about her post-NICHD career:
After your postdoctoral work, tell us about your next career move. What was the path you took into a teaching career?
I am not unlike many scientists who have faced the challenges of starting a family and continuing research. I made the decision to leave the bench when we decided to have a second child. Although I did not want to commit to a full-time position, I wanted to stay connected to scientific research in a career that allowed for flexibility.
My first part-time position was designing and teaching with a team of postdocs at the UMD. We were specifically hired by the Integrated Life Sciences (ILS) program, which is an undergraduate biological sciences-focused Living and Learning Program in the Honors College. ILS students live and take core classes together for their first two years, and most have aspirations to attend graduate or medical school. I have been an ILS teaching fellow since 2013, teaching the cell biology and now genetics and genomics courses.
As my children are getting older, my schedule is opening up to teach more courses. Last year, I also started teaching Principles of Biology at the MC Rockville Campus.
You have the unique experience of lecturing at a four-year research university and a community college. For fellows who are interested in teaching at either of these venues, can you describe the similarities and differences between the two? What aspects do you like or dislike about each teaching environment?
In my experience, both ILS at UMD and the Biology Department at MC want their entire faculty to feel supported, which is pretty special. The financial compensation is competitive for the area, and the facilities are top notch. Most importantly for me, collaboration between faculty is encouraged at both venues.
Our ILS students are incredibly high achieving. Many have worked in research labs before they entered university (maybe in some of your labs!). It is so much fun, but often exhausting working with highly motivated students. Sometimes we need to slow down to make sure that everyone deeply understands, and has not simply memorized the basics. The classes are larger, so it takes extra effort to get to know the students personally.
I have always wanted to work with students at the community college level. Although there can be unique challenges to teaching students who have different out-of-school pressures (work, family care, food insecurity), teaching at MC isn’t too much different from teaching at the university. The main difference is recognizing that many students don’t have a solid foundation of chemistry or biology from high school. So, we end up spending a bit more time working on that foundation. Having small class sizes is essential for getting to know how to best serve the students.
The number one take away I have after teaching for an honors program at a major university and for a community college is that every single student deserves quality, committed educators. For fellows who are interested in teaching in either venue, they should be prepared to be flexible, as each group of students brings a unique set of challenges and strengths.
What’s your typical day like?
I have two young children, so my day typically begins with overseeing packing of backpacks and lunches and making sure everyone takes a trip to the bathroom.
One aspect of teaching that has been important to my family is the flexibility. I am physically on campus a couple days a week while my children are at school. Preparations for class activities, lectures, exam writing, etc usually happens at night, once everyone has settled in.
I try to be very accessible to students, so I answer emails throughout the day as needed. Some of our MC students have challenging schedules or family commitments that make it difficult for them to attend office hours or tutoring sessions. I try to offer these students alternate times to meet on campus or online.
When did you start thinking about going into teaching?
As a graduate student, I knew I wanted to teach or at least that I would really enjoy the teaching aspect of being a research scientist. I remember listening to another postdoc comment about how naïve we all were in grad school. The idea that we would all go on to have our own research labs was absurd. There just wasn’t enough money and not all of us had good ideas. “I guess I could just teach,” someone said with a hint of shame. I remember feeling completely offended and sympathetic at the same time.
Something changed once I starting to learn more about the process of learning and how important effective teaching can be. Once I realized and took to heart that teaching wasn’t a “consolation prize” for a failed scientist, I committed to being an educator (at least part-time at first).
How did you find your positions?
I was fortunate to have participated in a teaching workshop* for NICHD fellows, hosted by Dr. Boots Quimby of the ILS Program at UMD. Dr. Quimby invited five postdoc fellows to design a flipped† honors-level cell biology course for ILS. Taking on this course was a unique opportunity for us, as not many young scientists are given opportunities to develop new courses. Our goal was to create a course that was based on data analysis and problem solving. We recorded lectures for the students to study on their own time, then guided them through problem-solving activities based on real data. It was quite a challenge, but we all worked well together and were excited to be part of a new project.
I was also fortunate to have developed a close relationship with the students and administrators of ILS and was offered an opportunity to teach and modify the course on my own. All together, I taught the honors cell biology course for five semesters. This semester, I am teaching the honors genetics and genomics course for ILS.
Please describe the application/hiring process. Did it take a long time?
Again, I have been incredibly fortunate and often feel I was at the right place at the right time, especially with my ILS position. I submitted an application for a part-time position at MC at the end of winter break last year, expecting to be put into a pool of candidates for the following fall. I was surprised to be called in for an interview the next week. The Biology Department at MC offers a rigorous program, and from what I understand, they are interested in applicants who have some teaching experience. So even though I slipped in at the right time, it definitely helped that I had some teaching experience.
Which skill sets from the lab best apply to teaching?
I don’t think I was especially good at it at the time, but having experience giving an engaging and interactive lab meeting is a great tool to have in your teaching toolkit. As scientists, we learn how to give a talk about our specific research interests. I always found the best talks were able to break down complicated topics into digestible pieces. These are the talks that made me ask questions or try to incorporate the topic into my own research. That’s what we want to do for our students!
Experience mentoring students in the research setting has also been useful. Setting attainable goals and deadlines for your students is a skill that comes with practice. I am still working on this for my students and myself!
What activities or resources at the NIH helped prepare you for your career transition?
I attended a few teaching workshops offered through the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) and the NICHD Office of Education. I also met with career counselors at NIH to be sure that my move away from the bench was the best route for me. Collectively, the resources provided by NIH and the flexibility offered by my advisor were essential for helping me move on. As I mentioned above, I am so grateful for being introduced to ILS through the teaching workshop.
What do you find most exciting about being a teacher?
At the beginning of the semester I am always excited about the new people I am going to meet. I am so comforted by the thought that many of the students I have the opportunity to teach are going to go on to do incredible things.
One of the other aspects of teaching that I really enjoy is when I sit down to design a new activity or lesson plan. Finding the best way to present a concept is incredibly rewarding.
What do you find most challenging?
As much as I love it, finding the time to work on course design is challenging, and it takes a lot of trial and error. Because I only teach one course a semester, I often have to wait until the next semester to try new ideas.
Do you have any advice for fellows who are thinking about entering a similar career field?
Try to be in the right place at the right time? Just kidding.
Before you apply for teaching positions, consider your motivations. Are you interested in teaching as a consolation prize? If so, it may not be the right field for you.
If you are truly interested in teaching, take advantage of all the opportunities NIH has to offer. If you are able to go to scientific meetings, try to attend sessions on pedagogy. There is a great teaching conference, the Lilly Conference on Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning**, in Bethesda at the end of May.
Do what you can to practice writing and implementing short lesson plans. Be kind to yourself if your first experiences don’t go as well as planned. Putting lesson plans into practice takes a lot of practice.
Is it ok if current NICHD fellows contact you with questions?
Of course! I am always willing to share my experiences: firstname.lastname@example.org.
* The NICHD Connection has covered several years of Dr. Quimby’s teaching workshops. Check them out below:
- Interesting Opportunity: Blended Learning Course Design
- Dr. Quimby’s Teaching Workshop Recap
- A Successful Start to a New Teaching Collaboration
**If you are interested in the Lilly Conference, check out the following article from our “Interesting Opportunity” column in the August 2017 issue of The NICHD Connection.
†Editor's Note: A flipped classroom emphasizes student learning outside of the classroom prior to the course meeting. Classroom time is reserved for student interaction and the exploration of concepts in greater depth, rather than the initial presentation of content.