Susan Walsh never set out to become an educator. Now this associate professor of Molecular/Cell Biology is designing the science curriculum from the ground up at Soka University of America (SUA) in Aliso Viejo, CA, where she is Director of the Life Sciences Concentration. Recently, Walsh helped organize ASCB’s Regional Educator Meeting “Teaching Tomorrow’s Scientists,” which, amid pandemic shutdowns, had to quickly shift online. She answered a few questions for ASCB.
Why did you decide to become a scientist and cell biology educator?
I didn’t anticipate that teaching would be my path. I did some teaching assistant work setting up laboratories and provoking discussion during my time as an undergraduate at a women’s small liberal arts college, but I didn’t even have a mentoring relationship during graduate school. When I was a postdoc, it was becoming clear that I did not want the research path. My professor, Arlene Russell, encouraged me to apply for visiting cell biology positions at small liberal arts schools, and I was lucky enough to secure one at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, where I really learned to teach. Now I’m on a bigger adventure, working with my new colleagues trying to build a science curriculum from scratch at SUA.
What was it like to design the Teaching Tomorrow’s Scientists Regional Meeting and suddenly having to shift gears to put that online?
Southern California not only has a lot of higher education institutions, but a diversity of institutions—from R1 to liberal arts to community colleges, so I was lucky to get Joel Abraham from California State University, Fullerton, and Andrea Nicholas from the University of California, Irvine, to help connect me to people and organizations out here. As the deadline for abstracts was coming due, the pandemic and the shutdowns hit, and we knew we couldn’t safely allow people to meet in person. Thea Clarke (ASCB’s Director of Communications and Education) shepherded us through everything, and we managed to reformat the meeting to still include our plenary speakers, four workshops, and some breakout discussion rooms. I don’t think it went perfectly, but I think many people, ourselves included, were pleased at how beneficial it was.
What do you think are important trends in life science education?
CUREs (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences)! I think that Vision and Change has been out for long enough that many biology educators know about it and have been working to implement it, so we have the experiences and data to start talking about how well this is going. The biggest challenge for me is that if you are truly doing original research with novice hands, sometimes things are going to fail, and we have to get our students through that. Right now, teachers like me are fumbling to figure out how online teaching can recreate the classroom community that we so easily build in person. As a white female educator, I also am reflecting on my role in supporting my students and attempting to integrate some analysis of race into all my courses. I cannot avoid the uncomfortable conversation anymore, but I also need to listen to those with different lived experiences than me and acknowledge when I make mistakes. I have told students that “it’s OK to not be OK right now” multiple times this spring, but I think that living through this tumultuous time also provides a chance for us to reflect about what we value and how we might want to redefine normal.
Explain your involvement with the Fringe Theater Festival.
I have always found that my laboratory and teaching experiences have reinforced my theater skills. You want me to take really good notes, do the same thing every night, and if something goes wrong, I should fix it before anyone notices? Got it! I started technical theater in college as a stage manager, and I loved the organization and power of it. That sounds ridiculous or arrogant maybe, but I felt that, unlike my experiments, if I hit the GO button, the lights would (99% of the time) go on. Sadly, this year, the fringe festivals I love have been canceled. The pandemic has undoubtedly changed our lives, but I am hopeful that when a vaccine is available, we will flood the performance spaces and build these communities again. Support your local theater group if you can!
About the Author:
Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.