Teaching at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution

Aug. 14, 2019

While there are many types of careers in the microbial sciences, teaching at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI) can be very rewarding. We interviewed Dr. Maureen Morrow, a Professor of Biology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She teaches classes and manages a research lab with undergraduate students. She enjoys watching the students that she mentors turn into her peers.

Describe your job and what you do on a day-to-day basis.

As a faculty member at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution (PUI), the majority of my time is spent on teaching activities like preparing and delivering lectures and laboratory classes, developing active learning modules, setting up and maintaining the teaching lab, grading and meeting with students. I also maintain a research lab, in which undergraduates work. And of course, there are meetings of various types in which I work with my colleagues to improve the university.

What do you enjoy most about working with undergraduate Students?

I enjoy watching students become my peers. I see this every semester as the students gain laboratory skills. After a few weeks, it seems like they have been working in a microbiology lab for years. Longer term, the students who go on to Ph.D. programs become my professional peers. One of those students, David Sela at UMass Amherst, recently helped me connect with a collaborator at his institution, and now I am spending part of my sabbatical at Amherst. Another student turned colleague, Cesar Perez (recipient of an ASM Undergraduate Research Fellowship), works as a Regulatory Officer for the FDA and has connected me with a program for undergraduate students interested in Quality Science.

How did you get into your current position?

I was fortunate to secure a position as a full-time visiting professor for a maternity leave replacement. This experience solidified my interest in teaching undergraduates and provided appropriate credentials for my current position. An important aspect of my personality is my enjoyment of teaching. I gain a sense of satisfaction seeing my students grow as scientists. I also have a variety of interests outside of microbiology, and thus I enjoy learning about the pursuits of my colleagues from across the institution.

What can graduate students and postdocs do right now to best prepare themselves for entering your profession?

Teaching is notably different from working in the lab. For anyone considering a job as a PUI faculty member, they should gain experience in teaching. A postdoctoral teaching fellowship is one mechanism for gaining this experience. Just as a graduate school is more likely to accept someone with undergraduate research experience, a PUI is more likely to offer a job to someone with teaching experience. Also, as I am learning on my sabbatical, some experience with programming will open up opportunities in bioinformatics.

What is the outlook for job prospects in your field?

Some predications about the future of job prospects at PUIs express concern for the demographic decline of college aged students, and others note that there are many ‘non-traditional’ students (outside of the 18-22 year-old range) who are attending college. So, future teachers need to be able to implement teaching practices that are inclusive and promote success for all students, regardless of background, age, ethnicity, race, etc.

You recently completed ASM’s online professional development webinar, "Biology Education Research Webinar Series." Can you share the most important items you learned in the course?

I learned how I can take a scholarly approach toward classroom teaching and may start an education research project soon. Overall, participation in the webinar has encouraged me to think more critically about my course delivery and the process by which students develop a “science identity.”

How has ASM's webinar made an impact on your undergraduate teaching career?

I learned the importance of active learning experiences and the webinar encouraged me to continue developing these types of experiences. One specific change I will make is the use of concept inventories as a mechanism for obtaining feedback on teaching effectiveness.

What is your one piece of career advice for the next generation of microbiologists?

Programming skills will be useful in this age of big data. Embrace any opportunity to gain experience with quantitative analysis. In parallel, find something that excites you and make the time to share that excitement with others.

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Author: ASM Careers

ASM Careers
How can you make the challenges of a microbiology career just a bit less stressful? One way: Reach out to colleagues for advice, support and inspiration. ASM Careers helps you do just that - virtually!

Author: Contributor

The Education Board's mission is to educate individuals at all levels in the microbiological sciences. It supports both student and faculty development through fellowships, online publications, conferences, workshops, and institutes, and networking opportunities.