A scientist who teaches or a teacher of science?

by Joseph Provost, Ph.D., Minnesota State University, Moorhead

I love being a college professor.  And for the past fifteen or so years, I have devoted my life to teaching undergraduates.  Prior to joining Minnesota State University Moorhead as a faculty, I have had opportunities to work in other occupations using my doctorate.  But this is the life for me. Being a college professor is just one of many career options for those with advanced degrees in biochemistry, molecular biology and other biomedical sciences.  In a later blog, I will write about a very interesting study the NIH conducted on where those with PhD’s go after graduate school.  Today, I want to focus on a central question that I have asked myself and other college professors, “are you a scientist who teaches, or a teacher of science?”

A college professor at schools with mostly undergraduates (also known as primarily undergraduate institutions or PUIs) often have a dual (and sometimes a duel) role; one of teaching and another as a researcher.  Both roles can be fulfilling and all consuming.  Most PUI faculty teaches two to five classes or labs each semester and can have a range of research responsibilities.  Some schools have little expectation of funded research for their faculty while others pride themselves on faculty who are able to balance research and teaching while publishing and getting extramural funding.

Provost Lecturing

Provost lecturing

It isn’t easy balancing the demands of teaching with those of research and funding.  But if you enjoy working with students as well as conducting research, I have found that PUIs provide the opportunity to do both.  At a PUI, there are times when teaching takes the lead.  I have been involved in creating exciting new pedagogical approaches, working with groups of students or mentoring non-science majors through their college careers, all of which are amazing and rewarding experiences.  This is teaching at its finest.  Research, whether it is mentoring undergraduates in a research laboratory or writing that grant proposal that you hope and pray will be funded, comes with its own rewards and satisfactions.

I am proud to say that at a PUI, I have found the freedom to be a scientist who teaches, not just a teacher of science.  And there is a difference!  One of my old college biology professors (one who earned the fear of many a young biologists and chemists with of her very demanding course) told me that as a scientist “we have the responsibility to create new as well as teach the old”.  In other words, while being a teacher of science is important, I think being a scientist who teaches means you have a different perspective.

A good teacher can master nearly any subject, design and use an engaging pedagogy and teach students well.  A scientist who can also teach is different.  A scientist who teaches approaches teaching with a scientific mindset.   Scientists possess the intellectual curiosity and willingness to take something apart in order to learn how things work.  A scientist knows what it is like to toil late into the night in a lab and when an experiment works, they know the joy and excitement that new data brings.  However, research alone does not make an effective teacher.  This experience must be coupled with a scholarly approach to instruction to truly be effective.  There will be times that one is a teacher, instructing material foreign to you. Yet at other times, one will be a scientist relating the joy of discovery.   How you define yourself as a biochemist and molecular biologist will change.  So are you a scientist who teaches or a teacher of science?  The amazing thing about having a PUI career is that I can be both a teacher and a scientist, and both at the same time.

3 thoughts on “A scientist who teaches or a teacher of science?

  1. A very eloquent and passionate article/blog. I can say the same situations exist for those of us who are considered “teaching professionals” at larger R1 universities as well, since our interactions are almost exclusively with undergraduates, though we are responsible for mentoring Graduate Teaching Assistants assigned to our lecture or lab courses.

  2. A very eloquent and passionate article/blog. I can say the same situations exist for those of us who are considered “teaching professionals” at larger R1 universities as well, since our interactions are almost exclusively with undergraduates, though we are responsible for mentoring Graduate Teaching Assistants assigned to our lecture or lab courses.

  3. A very eloquent and passionate article/blog. I can say the same situations exist for those of us who are considered “teaching professionals” at larger R1 universities as well, since our interactions are almost exclusively with undergraduates, though we are responsible for mentoring Graduate Teaching Assistants assigned to our lecture or lab courses.

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