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Research-led teaching opportunities for early career researchers

Recently, I was invited to attend a workshop at the University of Exeter, organized by George Littlejohn*, Tom Howard and Lizzy Dridge, a post-doctoral Research Fellow in Professor Nick Talbot’s group, Independent Research Fellow and Associate Lecturer respectively. The aims of the workshop were to help Early-Career Researchers (ECRs: e.g., graduate students and post-docs) make best use of the time they spend on teaching and outreach activities.

There were three major themes covered by the presentations from nine people, ranging from senior staff to graduate students:

  • How to teach and supervise undergraduate students,
  • How to find opportunities for teaching and outreach, and
  • How to get meaningful recognition for your efforts.

    Workshop organizers Lizzy, George and Tom

    Workshop organizers Lizzy, George and Tom

Mentoring undergraduates

Tom Howard (@The4thDomain) put forward the tongue-in-cheek claim that “undergrads never do anything useful anyway”, which he quickly dispelled by showing a list of publications with undergraduate co-authors, including the recently published synthetic yeast chromosome. When undergraduate projects contribute to publications, they and their mentor benefit. Tom helped us brainstorm and evaluate potential research projects for undergraduates. Although there are no guarantees, mentors should be clear about their goals for the project and the students. 

Tom and Lizzy (@lizzydridge) have both served as mentors for the Exeter iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition team. In the iGEM competition, teams of undergraduate students design and build “biological systems and operate them in living cells”. They encourage other ECRs to get involved with iGEM, and point out that many iGEM projects result in publications, including a forthcoming ACS Synthetic Biology journal iGEM special.

I gave a quick overview of research-informed and research-led teaching practices and shared resources to help ECRs become effective teachers and mentors, including the NSF / AAAS Vision and Change report.  We discussed the need to integrate research practices throughout the curriculum in the form of inquiry-based labs and active learning strategies, and the need to set clearly defined learning objectives. 

Finding opportunities

The opportunity to be involved formally in undergraduate education will vary from institution to institution, and in some cases it may seem to be very difficult to get those opportunities. Be proactive and be persistent if you want to do more teaching was the consensus. Sometimes finding the right person to talk to is key; an undergraduate teaching coordinator may be able to help.

If formal teaching seems elusive, don’t overlook the many informal opportunities. We heard many suggestions including:

  • Volunteering at science festivals, science fairs, or Fascination of Plants Day,
  • Being a STEMNET ambassador (in the UK),
  • Mentoring school children through plantingscience.org,
  • Creating a video, manual or workshop about a method or a piece of equipment in the lab, or
  • Engaging the public with your research through a game or crowdsourcing (see for examples The Fraxinus Game or Clumpy).

    Some of the early career researcher participants

    Some of the early career researcher participants

Getting recognition

Nothing looks better on a CV than the ability to secure funding, so you should explore these opportunities. The ASPB offers some support in the form of summer undergraduate research fellowships and BLOOME grants to support educational projects. If you are proactive and persistent you might get funds from your institution (e.g., this workshop was supported by a grant from the University of Exeter).

Some of the key points to keep in mind for your career development are to

  • Get a diversity of experiences,
  • Document what you do,
  • Share your efforts through publications including social media,
  • Get formal recognition for your efforts; see for example the professional recognition schemes ASPIRE at the University of Exeter, and the Higher Education Academy in the UK.

Maybe you could start by organizing a workshop like this at your own institution! Contact me (mwilliams@aspb.org or @PlantTeaching) or George (G.R.Littlejohn@exeter.ac.uk or @ExeterImaging) if you want advice.

*George is the 2014 Society of Experimental Biology’s Presidential Medalist from the Education & Public Affairs section, for his efforts to promote “the mutually beneficial relationship of teaching and research”.

Photos courtesy of Dana MacGregor (@plantenv), University of Exeter.

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  • John Love April 30, 2014, 10:45 am

    The more we dare to let the young scientists and students we work with improve their present, the more fulfilling it is and the better the future will be; more inclusive, more supportive and more productive – I’m certain of that.

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