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Teaching and research: walking the tight rope

Ram Mishra, Indian Institute of Science Education and research



The two important pillars of science are: teaching and research, one feeding on the other in a cyclic manner. Teaching and research require different sets of skills and striking a justifiable balance between the two is an arduous task. The teaching component of science is more challenging as it inherently involves educating curious minds while keeping the topics interesting enough to captivate their attention. Consequently teaching and educating should be a coupled process but in most cases the difference between the two isn’t clear nor is it well understood. In my opinion, if teaching is unidirectional passage of information then analysis and integration in bidirectional modes is education.

Through a PhD, and then a postdoc, we are trained as scientists and researchers, to think logically, analyze experimental results, design experiments to test hypothesis, but the need to develop one’s skill to teach is sorely forgotten. More importantly, as researchers, we have relatively less understanding of what it takes to be in a teaching institute and do research. To most of us trained in science, research is a natural progression, but educating the next generation is a totally different ball game as I discovered once I teaching.

I got initiated into teaching through a course on Cellular organization. The course is what might be referred to as a Bio101 in the United States, and is designed to give a background about a Cell, its organization and functions performed by each component within. Though straightforward, what makes it a bit hard is the fact that the class comprises of not just biology majors but also those majoring in other sciences – physics or Mathematics who have no previous background in biology. These students do not understand a Cell, let alone ribosomes or transcription. As I teach, the realization has dawned on me, that I am myself a student in the process of learning to teach. Each student is different as is each class, and one needs to constantly change and innovate to convey key concepts to the students effectively. The most challenging part of this particular course is to keep each topic interesting for those who have a background while basic and simple for those without prior knowledge.

I have personally taken much help from various websites that have pictorial and animated representation of basic biology (http://www.ibiblio.org/virtualcell/). My experience is that students tend to understand more from the class when the gist of the topic is summarized by a short audio-visual animation. It reemphasizes key information/concepts, which then get ingrained in their minds. Simple experiments might work the same way though this is something I still have to try.

As I mentioned earlier educating is bidirectional, hence an enthusiastic involvement of students surely helps the cause. At present it often seems much of the teaching I do is instructional, with hardly any student participation. When, I do get the students excited about a particular topic and start a discussion in the class it is exhilarating for me as well as gratifying. However, engaging the students I realized much harder to do than analyzing and designing ones experiments. That is one aspect of teaching that requires lot more time than what we think before we embark on any teaching.  

Being a researcher at the beginning of my scientific career, it is important to focus on research as well. If you focus on your research then teaching quality is compromised and if you devote more time on teaching then research suffers. It is hence, a tight rope that I have just begun to walk on but hope to learn soon to do justice to both aspects of science.

Hi Mishra, Good article.... very good explanation about the

Hi Mishra, Good article.... very good explanation about the teaching at early stage of scientist and balancinig between research and teaching

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