A Postdoctoral Perspective on Teaching in the Department of Plant Pathology

By: Leon van Eck, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Associate Leon van Eck

Educating the leaders of tomorrow is integral to the fulfillment of the University of Minnesota’s land-grant mission. During the spring 2017 semester, I had the opportunity to assist with or guest lecture in graduate courses offered by the Department of Plant Pathology. In Professor Brian Steffenson’s excellent course called Plant Disease Resistance and Application (PLPA 5660), I taught on the structure of disease resistance genes, and how that structure relates to function. The class consisted of graduate students from several academic disciplines. Since this kind of technical material can be intimidating to those unfamiliar with protein biochemistry, it was important to me to present the content in several different ways. Introducing information in ways compatible with different learning styles engaged everyone, and I could keep a vibrant, interactive discourse going. The students grappled with the concepts, aided by animations, case studies and paper discussions. As their understanding of effector recognition models deepened, so their enthusiasm for the molecular biology of disease resistance grew. It was an immensely exciting and satisfying process to participate in.

Postdoctoral associate Zewei Song

Postdoctoral Associate Zewei Song

I’m not alone in these teaching activities, of course. The department has a particularly excellent corps of research staff and postdoctoral associates involved in teaching and training students. After reflecting on my own teaching experience at the conclusion of my course, I wanted to reach out to some of the other instructors to get a sense of what their experiences have been like.

Postdocs Zewei Song and Sarah Castle taught a plant pathology seminar course called Amplicon Sequencing: From Sample Preparation to Publication (PLPA 5999). It’s a course on environmental microbiomes, where Castle aimed to develop students’ computational proficiency for analyzing DNA sequencing data, and integrate those skills with deeper understanding of the underlying biology. Song—who brought his extensive experience in sequencing data processing to the course—compiled a special bioinformatics wiki for beginners with tutorials and examples. The course proved very popular.

Plant Pathology postdoctoral Associate Sarah Castle

Postdoctoral Associate Sarah Castle

“The number of students, postdocs and technicians that wanted to attend our class shocked me,” says Castle. Both Castle and Song agree that students excelled when they arrived to class ready to engage with the instructors and their classmates.

“I think it is important for a teacher to be willing to push students into their discomfort zone,” says Song, whereas Castle maintains that good teachers are also “sensitive to the needs and interests of the students."

Together, these passionate postdocs engaged and challenged their students to ensure that their class was a place of active learning.

Research Associate JP Dundore-Arias taught a freshman seminar course called Antibiotics: Promise, Profits and Pitfalls (PLPA 1942) with Professor Linda Kinkel in the fall. This course familiarizes students with the fascinating history of antibiotics, including their discovery, chemistry, and use in medicine and agriculture. Students also studied how antibiotics function in the context of ecology and evolutionary biology. The course is open to students from diverse and undeclared majors, which Dundore-Arias says presents a unique opportunity to combine traditional lectures with group study and hands-on learning activities. He feels strongly about creating an inclusive classroom environment.

Plant Pathology Postdoctoral Associate JP Dundore Arias

Postdoctoral Associate Jose Pablo Dundore-Arias

“I try to make all individuals feel that their contributions and perspectives are equally valued and respected,” says Dundore-Arias, explaining that this facilitates lifelong learning. Dundore-Arias also believes personal context is critical to academic success. He emphasizes the importance of providing students with “an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between the course material and their educational and professional objectives."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the postdocs of the department are quite involved in educational programs outside of the department. Sarah Castle assisted in developing an after-school program for high school girls, led by Mohamed Yakub (the Stakman–Borlaug Center’s Outreach and Education Coordinator) and Candice Hirsch (Assistant Professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics). Castle describes the program as “a hands-on science experiment, aimed at understanding how environmental stress changes plant phenotypic responses and gene expression,” adding that they developed the program to have greenhouse, laboratory, and computer coding phases. JP Dundore-Arias collaborated with Dr. Ilene Alexander (Center for Educational Innovation) on projects dedicated to promote diversity and inclusion in teaching. He also participated in the Partnering for School Success programs offered by UMN Extension. Dundore-Arias says the goal of these programs is “to expose Latino first-generation students to various academic, research, and professional career opportunities in various fields, including plant pathology."

Being a course instructor is a wonderful opportunity to teach, encourage and inspire students. I have found that you inevitably learn from your students as well, and I am often inspired by their verve and unique perspectives. Every postdoc I spoke to takes the job of training the plant scientists of the future very seriously. These teaching chats with my colleagues have made it clear to me just how exceptional a group of young educators the Department of Plant Pathology has in its postdocs, a group I am delighted to be a part of.