Meet Stefanie Iverson Cabral!

Interview by Long Lam, Health Studies Student

Dr. Iverson Cabral at Commencement

Tell me about yourself and why you became a professor

I always liked math and physics and thought I would be an engineer like my dad. I had no interest in biology because I thought it would be nothing but dissecting animals. I put biology off in high school until my Junior year until I couldn’t avoid it any longer and that when I had an amazing teacher who taught me how wrong I was! He said before we learned about the big things, we needed to understand what was happening inside the cells and from then on I was hooked. I went to an underfunded high school and the only way I could take AP biology was to come before school and mostly review on my own. I was lucky enough that our school’s biology teacher was willing to work with me individually and did other incredible things like spend his own money to buy a set of pipettes to give us experience with lab work while still in high school. That was the start of me being really interested in microbiology and the start in my appreciation of what a really invested teacher could do.

What interested you in this field?

I have always been interested in history and fascinated by illness. As I learned more about microbiology, it blew my mind that these tiny, microscopic organisms that you can’t even see with your naked eye could be so sophisticated and powerful. I knew I loved microbiology and knew I wouldn’t be very good at taking care of patients directly, so I struggled with how I could impact human health with science without becoming a doctor or a nurse. After college I came to UW Seattle where I did my PhD in Pathobiology, which is a mix of microbiology and public health. This is where I really learned how being a bench scientist could have a real impact in health and medicine.

What is it that you want your students to take away from your lessons and courses overall?

That no matter their skills, interests, or past experience with “science”, anyone can learn about microbiology. Many of the classes I teach are electives for non-majors and I’ve had several students who have had negative experiences with science and math classes in the past. My goal is for students to leave my classes not only having learned something about microbiology, but with the confidence to know that this is something they can be good at. I also want students to finish the quarter having an appreciation for microbes and understanding how they have impacted society in the past and how they are applicable to students today.

How did you come up with some of the ideas for these courses?

It depends! For the infectious disease detective course, I needed to develop a lower-division elective for non-majors that would fulfill the campus’ Natural World Requirement. I was thinking back to a teaching experience I had at Seattle Pacific University when I co-taught the microbiology class and lab for the pre-allied health professionals. The other instructor would review the diseases we had covered by giving students a pretend patient they would have to diagnose — I thought it would be cool to develop something similar for our students, especially one that could be accessible for all students, not just those in STEM. I also wanted something that biology majors would also appreciate — traditional microbiology courses have to cover so much content, they often don’t have time to dive into many of the infectious diseases and deeply as students may want. This course seems like a perfect opportunity to do both!

Tell me more on what makes the students being disease “detective” while taking the course

Over the 10 weeks, students will learn about 40 different infectious diseases. We cover the pathogen that causes it, how it is transmitted, the symptoms, treatment, prevention, and cure (if applicable). As we learn, the information for each disease is organized so that students can see how they compare. For example, which ones are transmitted by mosquitoes, which ones give people a rash, which ones are associated with eating raw meat? Students are then tested on their understanding by getting a hypothetical patient in an activity I call “clinical correlates” — in class they are told some basic information such as the person’s age, gender identity, location, and presenting symptoms like fever or a cough. It is up to the students to then play “detective” as they come up with questions to ask to learn more about that patient’s illness, their risk factors, background, progression, etc. They use what they have learned to diagnose the patient, develop a treatment recommendation, and make a prognosis, or prediction about what may happen during the course of that person’s infection.

Is there a certain style to your thinking when it comes to striking a basic of having a course that is informative, but also fun to learn?

When I first started teaching this class a few years ago (pre pandemic), I only had students diagnose hypothetical patients three times and then also used traditional multiple-choice tests as a way to assess student understanding. I watched some students struggle with test anxiety while they loved the clinical correlates and once we went remote due to COVID, I saw an opportunity to shift the way I delivered content and assessed understanding. Now students have the opportunity to independently learn about each disease and complete low-stakes quizzes to make sure they understand what has been presented to them and we reserve all the formal assessment of learning for the clinical correlates. It creates a more dynamic, energetic class time with students sharing ideas and comparing notes about what is going on.

What is the research like on your end when you have to create the courses along with how do you tie it in with the themes of that course?

I’m not sure if I understand this question, but I am working to publish some of the courses I’ve created to share the curriculum with other teachers. For example the elective I have on quarantine and isolation was published in 2021. []

Something that brings you the most joy of teaching students?

Some of my favorite teaching moments have been when students tell me 1) they never thought they could do well in a science class, but now see that they are fully capable, 2) they go home to their family and friends and talk about disease and everything they are learning [this was me as a student, actually I still do it!], 3) they end up facing an illness themselves (or with a family member) and feel like they have the tools to understand what the doctors are saying to them, what questions to ask, and how to find information, and 4) that they feel supported, like I care about them as a person.

What would you like to say for students who are interested in your class?

I would love to have you as a student! This disease detective class covers A LOT of information, but it is one of my absolute favorites! We cover 40 different diseases and I wonder if I should develop a second version of it so we can talk about more! Believe it or not, 40 is just the tip of the iceberg!