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This issue of CDTL Brief on Balancing Teaching and Research discusses the delicate relationship between teaching and research and offers tips on how to balance them optimally.

August 2004, Vol. 7, No. 7 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
My Ride on the MRT: Marriage between Research and Teaching
 
Assistant Professor Low Boon Chuan
Department of Biological Sciences
 

Like all others who have chosen their jobs with passion and are geared towards giving their best to the companies or sectors they serve, educators bear unique societal roles in helping to shape the country’s young minds from pre-school to the higher levels. As the level of education rises, so does the level of complexity and emergence of new knowledge we want to see being imparted to our students. Here, teaching is seen traditionally as a mechanism for ‘transferring’ the knowledge, while research expects the ‘creation’ of new knowledge through extensive searching, testing and formulating new ideas. These two seemingly unrelated duties are undertaken by two branches of professionals, namely the teachers and researchers. But in actual fact, an important and complex element of congruence and connection does exist between the two. Various studies are now trying to define this teaching/research nexus and to accurately capture the essence of the two underlying principles of education. Is this relationship between teaching and research really complex? Or is it a subtle one? Is there a ‘critical point’ where these two might or should meet?

My experience as a scientist for five years at a research institute followed by three years as an Assistant Professor in NUS has certainly helped me appreciate what seemed to have been missing from the institute then (discounting my role in supervising some graduate students): the wonderful opportunity of interacting with young minds and the chance to try new disciplines at an academic setting. For example, the structuring of new curricula where there is both exciting and ‘enterprising’ interaction between research and teaching. Still, one key issue that always remains is: ‘What constitutes the best portfolio for a university professor, especially for the more junior staff?’ Research, teaching and/or service? How are we going to optimise our effort and maximise the output in the research-intensive academic department without getting too paranoid about how teaching might affect the quality of research, AND at the same time providing top-grade teaching? Since teaching and research are supposed to go hand-in-hand in higher-level education, these questions become less of an issue for me. Still, faced with constraints such as time and finite resources, plus the expectation to generate new ideas in the form of scientific publications, we need to take a closer look at how to happily bring about and survive the marriage between teaching and research. Hence, a more realistic and perhaps more optimistic question would be: ‘How could teaching and research be synergised?’ The answer must lie in their intricate chemistry of cross-catalysis mediated by two groups of key players, students and us.

Let me start by highlighting some major mutual benefits that can be derived from the synergising of teaching and research, and then briefly describe how they can be optimised by the 3T scheme of management framework: Time, Team and Topic (Figure 1). Here, the teaching element encompasses both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and the research element can be applied to any discipline.

Figure 1: Creating and maintaining a healthy MRT through the 3T system. Please refer to text for details.


The Benefits from Extending Research to Teaching

  1. Master inspires disciples. Teachers have effective means of ensuring good learning outcomes. If the teacher himself/herself is a ‘master’ researcher of a particular field, posing challenging concepts to the students would have very positive influence on their learning culture. For example, Professor Salvador E. Luria’s (Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, 1969) strong emphasis on exposing students right from their early undergraduate training had set the tradition for top guns from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Whitehead Institute to lead and teach introductory courses, and not just the postgraduate modules.

  2. Fantastic discoveries promote students’ interests. By injecting the teacher’s own learning experiences into the teaching process, for example, how the success of creating a transgenic fluorescent fish came about, would spice up the attention and interests among both students and the public.

  3. Depth follows breadth. Following the broad-based studies structure and the strong interest background, students are then encouraged to practise critical thinking in solving research-type issues. This can be fostered by teachers doubling as researchers themselves to probe in-depth issues which are of great interest to both parties.

  4. Ice-breaker. Having two separate and distinct departments to undertake research and teaching will tend to create unhealthy disparity. In addition to the merits described above, having more research staff to take up more teaching duties will help break the ice and promote research collaboration in the process.

The Benefits of Teaching to Research

  1. Good access to student pools. Conducting classroom teaching immediately alerts teachers to enthusiastic students for projects at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Building up the critical mass with excellent quality is important for maintaining dynamics in a research team.

  2. Foster excellence in communication skills. Great researchers should speak and write well to relay the crucial information accurately and persuasively. Teaching is a unique art that helps to shape both the confidence and sharpness needed in delivering ideas. This partly explains why most great researchers are excellent teachers too.

  3. Diversify research programmes. New ideas and concepts acquired during teaching certain multi-disciplinary courses e.g. bioinformatics, system biology, computational biology, biophysics, chemical biology etc. can enrich one’s research programme. This also allows for the rapid re-alignment of research programme when the old areas become stale. With focus on cell signaling, I have certainly enjoyed learning new tools in bioinformatics, proteomics and developmental biology that make our research more versatile and fun!

  4. Team-teaching promotes integration. The spirit of team work develops when co-teaching with colleagues and could foster closer research collaboration.

Managing the Balancing Act: Time, Team and Topic

To maintain a healthy marriage between teaching and research, we ought to ensure that we enjoy what we are doing. While it is easier to say than done, the following 3T scheme can be our guiding principles towards this end.

  1. Time management: Manage our time appropriately for either activity. Try to prepare lectures in a format that allows for rapid revision or updates whenever one comes across any new information from readings. Use small group tutorials for Q & A rather than meeting students individually unless there are exceptional cases.

  2. Team management: Manage the research team by assigning each member a specific task or duty and a “laboratory manager”. There should be provisions for leadership opportunities for the more senior staff or students assisting in mentoring the junior ones. For teaching, maintain team-teaching among colleagues with similar interests and update the course materials accordingly.

  3. Topic management: Each research or teaching topic should be classified meticulously for quick reference with proper cross-referencing. Notes should be updated as and when new ideas either for research or teaching projects emerge. For module teaching, one should volunteer to teach course with which one feels comfortable and one that should ideally provide room for new ideas. Examination topics can be set according to the nature encountered by the research.

‘Teaching informing research’ and ‘research informing teaching’ is poised to set the new landscapes to attain the best quality of education. Like the efficient Mass Rapid Transport commuter system here in Singapore, I would certainly think that the principle of MRT stipulated above will catalyse my desire to stay relevant in both my research and teaching career.

References

Lodish, H. (2004). ‘Teaching is Good for Research’ Newsletter for the American Society for Cell Biology Vol. 27 No. 2, pp.2–5. http://ascb.org/news/vol27no2/ie/February-04.html (Last accessed: 27 May 2004).

Kane, R., Sandretto, S. & Heath, C. (2003). ‘A Balancing Act for an Unknown Future: Exposing the Teaching/Research Nexus at the University of Otago’. http://surveys.canterbury.ac.nz/herdsa03/pdfsref/Y1099.pdf (Last accessed: 27 May 2004).

Wolyniak, M. J. (2003). ‘Balancing Teaching and Research Experiences in Doctoral Training Programmes: Lessons for the Future Educator’. Cell Biology Education. Vol. 2, pp.228–232.

 
 
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Inside this issue
Strengthening the Teaching-research Nexus
   
Balancing Teaching & Research: The Struggles of a New Assistant Professor
   
My Ride on the MRT: Marriage between Research and Teaching
   
Research/ Writing Groups
   
Integrating Research into Teaching