Hoping to InSPIRE the Perfect Academician

" SPIRE will provide the skills and opportunities that should separate me from the majority of other postdocs applying for academic positions in the future." This quote appeared in a Science's Next Wave article (see " Postdoctoral Training Reform: A Program for Scientist-Teachers") and was attributed to a confident young man who had recently finished his doctorate and was beginning a unique postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill.

Looking back 3 years, it's hard to believe that I was that young postdoc, but the skills I've learned as a result of my SPIRE training will benefit the next generation of scientists whom I will teach and mentor in the classroom and laboratory.

SPIRE Training

The SPIRE (Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education) program was created to provide a well-rounded training experience for postdoctoral fellows as they prepare for the academic job market. Compared to the research-only focus of a traditional postdoctoral fellowship, SPIRE emphasizes the attainment of cutting-edge pedagogical skills (the art of teaching), professional development, and competitive research training. The program lasts for 3 years with the possibility of an extension.

During the first 2 years of the program, fellows concentrate on research under the mentorship of a scientist based at UNC Chapel Hill, Duke University, or North Carolina State University. I conducted my research with Channing J. Der and Adrienne D. Cox, two scientists in the Departments of Pharmacology and Radiation Oncology at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at UNC Chapel Hill. My research focused on understanding the role of the Ras oncogene in pancreatic cancer. Like other postdocs at UNC, I spent long hours in the lab and presented my research at national conferences, including that of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

But unlike most other postdocs, along with their research training, SPIRE fellows participate in a number of workshops and panel discussions that provide practical information on how to become "facilitators of knowledge." Students bring a variety of learning styles to the classroom, and an exceptional teacher must develop innovative ways to motivate students. The traditional monologue lecture might reach some students but could be detrimental to other learners.

During the third year, through a matching process similar to that used to place medical school graduates into residency programs, SPIRE fellows are paired with one of seven traditionally minority-serving universities, where they teach undergraduates (see box below).

UNC-SPIRE Participating Universities

  • Elizabeth City State University, Elizabeth City, North Carolina

  • Fayetteville State University, Fayetteville, NC

  • Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte, NC

  • North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro, NC

  • North Carolina Central University, Durham, NC

  • Shaw University, Raleigh, NC

  • University of North Carolina, Pembroke

Putting What I Learned to Work

I was selected to teach at Fayetteville State University (FSU), a historically black university in Fayetteville, North Carolina. From the moment I stepped on campus, I was welcomed by faculty, staff, and students. As a young African-American male with a science doctorate, I had the opportunity to serve as a role model in the Department of Natural Sciences and to make a difference in many lives. I was determined to continue the nurturing tradition of professors at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) by instilling confidence, knowledge, and pride.

My mentor at FSU was Valerie Fleming, a professor in the natural sciences department. Throughout my teaching year, we met at least once a week to discuss concerns and questions that arose in the classroom. With her many years as a professor and administrator, she proved to be a fountain of wisdom and knowledge for my teaching experience. Because of her, I had many successful days in the classroom at FSU.

Although I enjoyed my teaching year at FSU, I especially relished the opportunity to mentor and advise students one on one. I was able to encourage at least five students (including two freshmen) to apply for and participate in summer research programs around the country. Although I still enjoy doing research in the lab, helping students realize that science is fun is the best part of my job.

The Importance of Teaching Skills

As many of us can attest from experiences in undergraduate or graduate school classes, having a professor with a doctorate does not always mean having an effective teacher. Traditional graduate programs aim to develop strong independent researchers; they rarely emphasize the acquisition of good teaching skills. It is ironic that many graduate students plan to have a career in academia but enter the job market with a major disadvantage: In many, perhaps most, cases the only formal training in teaching they receive is a short stint as a teacher's assistant (TA).

Being a TA doesn't automatically make you a good teacher. As a TA at the University of Arizona, my major responsibilities included using the copy machine and proctoring exams for the course coordinator. Although I was able to mentor and teach a few undergraduate students who were rotating through the lab during the summer, I was never allowed to teach a class as a graduate student. However, as a SPIRE fellow, I have been able to overcome this deficiency with training and teaching experience.

In conclusion, SPIRE has given me opportunities to obtain skills and experiences not available to every postdoc before applying for an academic position. Doing research, teaching, developing courses, mentoring, and participating in faculty meetings has prepared me to be an effective professor. So, the confident young man who was excited about SPIRE 3 years ago is just as confident today that he will be prepared for an academic position in the future.

Antonio T. Baines is a SPIRE postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and may be reached at antonio_baines@med.unc.edu.

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