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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
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.