Helping postdocs step up to teaching

By Douglas Esser

Sascha Krause, left and Winnie Ho, STEP fellow

Photo Sascha Krause, left and Winnie Ho, STEP fellows.

Jasmyne Bryant, left, with STEP fellow Adriana Raudzens Bailey

Photo: Jasmyne Bryant, left, with STEP fellow Adriana Raudzens Bailey.

Outstanding university scholars who earn doctorates and prove themselves as researchers may find themselves on the verge of a career in academia without experience in an essential part of a faculty position – teaching.

Moving to the front of a classroom is a big step for postdocs. Many from University of Washington campuses and affiliated institutions are finding instructional help with the Science Teaching Experience for Postdocs (STEP) program.

"It is pretty intimidating to just be tossed in the classroom,” says Eva Ma who earned a UW doctorate in molecular and cellular biology and became a postdoc in the UW Department of Biochemistry. You get teaching assistant experience as a graduate student but you don’t get much responsibility, says Ma. “You’re not in front of the class lecturing or designing a course.” 

L-R: Rebecca Price, Sarah Mondello, Salwa Al Noori, Eva Ma

Photo: L-R: Rebecca Price, Sarah Mondello, Salwa Al-Noori, Eva Ma.

STEP is directed by Rebecca Price, associate professor in the UW Bothell School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences. She has mentored about three-quarters of the 100 postdocs who have taken STEP since the program started in 2011. She and two others currently mentor 26 postdocs in nine teams (one team has only two postdocs).

Ma was introduced to teaching through a STEP class called Fur, Fins and Wings. 

“The most unique thing about this is you get to create a course on your own and not go through it by yourself, and that’s what drew me to this,” she says. “You get support with two other people who are going through the same thing. It’s really nice to have the support and the feedback.”

“It really helped me gain confidence in learning how to teach,” says Ma, a lecturer who teaches B BIO 200, Introduction to Cell/Molecular Biology at the University of Washington Bothell.Sarah Mondello, has a doctorate in neuroscience and is a postdoc in the UW Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, researching spinal cord injuries. Thinking about a possible future faculty position, she’s taking the STEP at UW Bothell, teaching Medicine of the Future. Among other things, students learn how to think critically about topics in the news such as genetic testing.

Mondello wasn’t comfortable teaching without the STEP support.

“It was very daunting to me before. Now I feel it can be an enjoyable process and something I would be totally happy to do,” Mondello says. 

Postdoc mentor Salwa Al-Noori, a biology lecturer in the UW Bothell School of STEM, says STEP is valuable on multiple levels: students, instructors and mentors. “It’s informing my own teaching,” Al-Noori says.

stepSTEP is supported by the Schools of STEM and School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at UW Bothell and also the University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences, the UW School of Medicine, the University of Puget Sound, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, and the Institute of Systems Biology in Seattle, says Price.

Not only does STEP give postdocs teaching experience, it also gives them a student-centered, active-learning strategy beyond lecturing, she says.

“It’s really getting students to work with the information,” Price says.

Winnie Ho, right, a STEP fellow, with Nicole FridayPhoto: Winnie Ho, right, a STEP fellow, with Nicole Friday. (Marc Studer photos)

That’s the other benefit from the STEP program. The undergraduates benefit from exposure to the postdocs’ cutting-edge research. The Fur, Fins and Wings class introduced students to model organisms in neuroscience: Ma used zebrafish as a model to study cells that regenerate. Another postdoc used fruit flies to study Parkinson’s, and the third used mice to study how light can turn on a gene or optigenetics.

STEP also draws strength from the diversity of instructors and students, Price says.

“Given that UW Bothell has so many first generation college students, so many students who are English language learners and so many students from such diverse backgrounds, it’s really inspiring to me to see students learning from postdocs,” Price says.