Through Tufts' TEACRS program, postdoctoral trainees are gaining experience at both the bench and the blackboard, all while giving minority undergraduates an edge.
Chris LaFratta is doing cutting-edge work. He's completing his postdoctoral studies at Tufts in the lab of Chemistry Professor David Walt, developing micro-scale electrochemical sensors. So why is he looking forward to an undergraduate general chemistry class next summer?
Because for the first time, he will be leading the class. As a participant in the TEACRS (Training in Education and Critical Research Skills) program, based at Tufts' Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, LaFratta and other postdoctoral trainees are not only performing high-level research across multiple schools at Tufts, but gaining the teaching skills they hope to bring into a career in academia.
"It's just amazing that this type of program doesn't exist everywhere. There's so much involved in teaching and it's not a natural skill," says LaFratta. "It's very forward thinking on Tufts' part."
Those skills are honed by teaching at the program's partner schools in the Boston area, where they also communicate to the underrepresented populations at those institutions the message that that an education and career in the sciences is within their reach.
"We're still wet behind the ears enough and excited enough to preach the science, and we're still na´ve enough to think that everybody will join in. Like, I really think that if I got up there and talked to the whole class that they're all going to want to become scientists," says LaFratta. "I think they picked the right group of people to call to duty to do this."
The Road to Academia
TEACRS is a three-year training program funded by the National Institutes of Health as one of eight IRACDA (Institutional Research Career and Academic Development Award) programs nationwide. Postdocs in the program participate in a series of mentoring and teaching workshops, including the Tufts Graduate Institute for Teaching, a summer program that instructs students in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences on lesson planning, assessment and teaching with technology.
"The goal is to find highly qualified candidates and then help them ensure they'll be successful in academic careers that involve teaching and research," says Claire Moore, director of the TEACRS program and professor of molecular biology and microbiology at Tufts School of Medicine and the Sackler School. "It really fits in with the Tufts mission statement, I think."
Moore also founded the Building Diversity in Biomedical Sciences program, which draws undergraduate students from a range of backgrounds to Tufts for summer research experiences.
TEACRS started last year with four postdocs representing Sackler, the School of Medicine, School of Engineering and the School of Arts & Sciences, bringing a true interdisciplinary perspective to the program. By and large, TEACRS attracts people who plan to pursue a career of both teaching and research at a liberal arts college.
Chris LaFratta at work in Professor David Walt's lab.
"I'm much more gung-ho about going into academics after being in it," says Amanda Murphy, a postdoctoral trainee in Professor David Kaplan's tissue engineering lab. "I feel a lot more comfortable, like I could actually be a good teacher if I am trained to be."
While TEACRS aims to build that confidence in its participants, another core goal of the program is to reach out to students who might not otherwise have access to research opportunities, or think that a career in scientific research is even possible.
As an African-American woman pursuing an academic career in the sciences, incoming TEACRS participant Ayana Hinton appreciates this focus. Just serving as an example to undergraduates that a career in the sciences is possible, she says, can provide significant support.
"I've always had people around me who were doing those kinds of interesting things that I could use as role models," says Hinton, who studies breast cancer metastasis in Professor Michael Forgac's lab at the Sackler School. "I know for so many people it seems kind of unattainable because they don't know people who do that." (continued)
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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications
Photos by Alonso Nichols for Tufts University.
This story originally ran on Sept. 17, 2007.