WHY I TEACH
by Wolfram Goessling, MD, PhD
In academic research, we often celebrate and praise the results, the novel discoveries, the high-impact papers, and the grants and accolades that come with success. While we need the novel mechanistic insights and scientific breakthroughs, we also need to focus on creating and defining a culture in which the process of discovery and the excitement of finding something new stay alive and attract the next generations of scientists.
In our current academic environment, we often hear the negative distractions and the justified complaints about the system we work in: getting grants has become too difficult, training is endless, peer review has become hostile. So, why continue to do it?
When we think about teaching, we might think about the class we are assigned to teach, the one that justifies the academic salary, the one that is a requirement for promotion. What is more important, however, is that we have an opportunity to impact and influence our trainees at a critical phase in their careers. This is not limited to the classroom nor restricted to the content we deliver; to me, interacting with trainees (undergraduates, graduate and medical students, postdoctoral fellows and residents) is the most exciting and rewarding experience of my daily work.
In the classroom, I teach graduate students about developmental and liver biology. Clearly, I must put emphasis on transmitting content, on giving students insight into mechanisms and processes. I try to illustrate, however, the open questions in the field, highlighting areas without solutions or established paradigms, to let students ponder the "why" more than the facts and details. This approach, I hope, allows them to develop their own questions and avenues of investigation.
In the clinic, I similarly emphasize the implications behind the facts, to make medical students and trainees aware of unsolved medical problems, the lack of understanding of pathophysiology, and diagnostic or therapeutic shortcomings. This reminds us that even though we have to make detailed and definitive plans to treat our patients, there are still many diseases and conditions for which we have only imperfect answers. In addition, I try to set examples of how we communicate our findings and treatment decisions to colleagues and with patients and their families.
The exciting part about mentoring trainees in the laboratory is that I can teach all the mentioned aspects on a longitudinal scale: ideas can be tested, revisited, and refined; new questions may arise from solved problems; and failures may lead to new ideas. This experience can be humbling but best reflects the nature of our work, which is driven by the excitement over the never-ending quest to ask new questions and the endeavor to discover answers to those questions. What I find most rewarding, however, is the opportunity to witness how trainees grow during this process, develop their own identity and style, and identify their preferences and interests with regard to their studies. This can lead to selection of a medical specialty or realization of which specific laboratory techniques are appealing, and exposure to the kinds of questions that keep one up at night. Witnessing this growth in my trainees and watching my students mature into physicians and scientists is what I find the most rewarding experience of this process.
And that is why I teach.
Wolfram Goessling, MD, PhD, is a physician-scientist who investigates liver development, regeneration, and cancer at Brigham and WomenÂ¹s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He also treats patients with liver cancer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He is the Robert H. Ebert Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and is the HMS Director of the HMS-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.