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Alexander Schwab entered graduate school at the University of Akron in Ohio intent on life in a research lab. He had no plans to teach. After running a summer science program for Akron-area high school students, however, he decided teaching was "a lot of fun." So he finished his Ph.D. and applied for a teaching postdoctoral fellowship at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, part of HHMI's science education grant program there.
"The faculty at Haverford taught me the importance of performing research with students. The problems encountered in research motivate you and your students to expand their expertise."
Now an assistant professor of chemistry at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, Schwab, 31, says he thoroughly enjoys teaching undergraduates. "I like challenging students and seeing them succeed."
Although he says his research didn't suffer, he says a teaching postdoc is a tough road unless the postdoc is firmly committed to teaching. "In the sciences, the research record you establish as a postdoc can help you get funding, which is why many academic institutions are more willing to hire candidates with a strong research background than a strong teaching background."
It's been a good fit for Erica Smith, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington studying the basic biology of aging. She's always had an interest in teaching, so when her research postdoctoral fellowship began in 2003, she looked for opportunities to teach. Not finding any on the university campus, she became a part-time instructor at a local community college. "That was a very valuable teaching experience, but it was not conducive to making progress on my research," she says.
Then she learned about the Future Faculty Fellows program supported by HHMI at the University of Washington, designed to give postdocs meaningful teaching experience with minimal impact on their research. Smith participated in a two-day workshop, followed by a teaching apprenticeship in which postdocs work together to design a course and then team-teach it.
"Although it's very challenging to balance teaching and research, I think teaching can really benefit your research," says Smith, "because it makes you think in different ways and look at things from a different perspective." It also built her a great peer network, "which is hard to come by for postdocs," she says.
Stephen Barkanic, director of HHMI's undergraduate science education program, acknowledges the balance issue. "We see these programs as a way to help make postdocs confident, effective teachers while continuing their scientific research. Most postdocs and graduate students receive little, if any, training in teaching and mentoring, but many of them are called on to teach undergraduate courses and mentor younger students in laboratories."
—Jennifer Boeth Donovan