UW Bioengineering lecturer Alyssa Taylor

UW Bioengineering Lecturer Alyssa Taylor

UW Bioengineering Lecturer Alyssa Taylor chose a different career path than most bioengineering Ph.D.’s. Instead of pursuing a tenure-track faculty position or a job in industry, she decided to focus on her passion for undergraduate education and become a course lecturer.

Since starting at UW in 2010, Dr. Taylor has launched a popular course for pre-majors and introduced hundreds of students to bioengineering. She has also taught laboratory courses and co-advised students in UW BioE’s senior capstone program. This year, she organized the department’s first capstone design symposium, which provided seniors the chance to present their research to the department community.

In 2014, Dr. Taylor was selected to teach a Collegium Seminar, a competitive opportunity for UW faculty to develop and teach courses that encourage freshmen to engage in academic discovery. She taught the course, entitled Bioengineering Innovations:  Advancing Human Health, this spring. Recently, Dr. Taylor was invited to teach another Collegium course in 2016.

We recently caught up with Dr. Taylor to learn more about her experience teaching and mentoring BioE students, and promoting educational excellence in the department community.

Instead of choosing a career as a tenure-track, research-focused professor, you instead decided to focus on teaching as a lecturer. Could you tell us how you came to this decision?

My teaching interests developed during graduate school.  I started out as Master’s student at the University of Virginia, and I intended to get a job in industry after graduate school. After discovering that I was learning so much and developing as a professional under my adviser’s mentorship, I switched to the Ph.D. track.

I became interested in teaching when I informally tutored some of my graduate cohort in a continuum mechanics course. I found that I really liked explaining concepts to others and helping them learn.  I also had the opportunity to serve as TA for two semesters for my school’s BME capstone course, which I really enjoyed.

These positive experiences motivated me to apply to the UVA Tomorrow’s Professor Today program, a professional development program for graduate students and post-docs interested in careers in academia. This two-year program helped hone my interests and preparedness for a teaching position.

After coming to UW, you developed a new course for pre-major students, BIOEN 215, and taught lab courses. You’ve also been an adviser and instructor for our senior capstone design program. What other teaching, service or educational outreach activities have you been involved in at BioE/ UW?

I serve many roles for our undergraduates. Not only do I teach students from freshman through senior year, but I am also their counselor, adviser and coach. I have mentored and advised countless undergraduates on diverse issues such as capstone challenges, scholarship applications, research opportunities, educational outreach, honors projects, design projects and reports, interviewing and career advice.

I enjoy supporting engineering outreach efforts, including WiSE (Women in Science and Engineering) events at UW. In collaboration with the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research, I have organized numerous outreach events targeted at underrepresented students in STEM. I also initiated our department’s involvement in prominent local outreach events such as Life Sciences Research Weekend, hosted by the Pacific Science Center and attended by ~15,000 people annually.

Hundreds of students now have discovered bioengineering through BIOEN 215. What do you like the most about working with pre-majors?

I am thrilled that I’ve had the opportunity to help contribute to the department’s educational mission through this class. Furthermore, I appreciate the faculty and other class guests who have helped make the class popular.

I love working with pre-majors because they are such an enthusiastic and interested bunch of students.  They are eager to learn about the many aspects of bioengineering and exploring exciting innovations in the field. Their enthusiasm is contagious and it makes teaching the class a great experience.

When I first taught the course in 2011, the plan was to offer it once a year to 125 students. The next year, the course was in such high demand that I was asked to teach it in both the autumn (125 students) and spring (60 students).  The course has remained very popular, and now enrolls around 225 students per year.

I feel that this course is important because it not only introduces freshmen to bioengineering, but also because it helps them feel more connected to UW and aids their transition to university life. Students who take this course are adjusting to life at a large university, which can be difficult and stressful. I make it a priority to get to know my students – I learn and memorize each of their names, and try to interact with them on a personal level.

My students do notice and appreciate my efforts to get to know them. To this day, I remember that after the first day of class in 2012, a student approached me after class and told me, “I just want to say I’m so excited for your course.  Yesterday I had my first class at UW and it was very intimidating.  The professor just mumbled into the microphone and I was like, is this how college is going to be?  I appreciate that your class is interactive and I am excited to participate!  After the first day in your class, I feel so much better.  Thank you!”

I find such comments from students rewarding, and I feel so fortunate to have a position at the UW where I have the chance to positively influence students’ experience here.

You’ve now taught several cohorts of students, from freshmen in BIOEN 215 through seniors working on capstone projects. What excites you about working with BioE majors as they advance through our program?

Seeing students develop from freshman through senior year is extremely rewarding.  Selfishly, I am always sad when they leave us, but I am excited to see them move on to the next chapter in their lives.

It’s so much fun for me to watch students transition from wide-eyed freshman trying to figure out life at a large university, to confident seniors who are essentially experts in the area of their capstone projects!

How did you get involved in the UW Collegium Seminar program?

The Vice President and Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs put out a call for proposals in December 2013 for faculty interested in teaching a UW Collegium Seminar during the 2014-2015 academic year.

I thought it sounded like a great opportunity because the goal of the UW Collegium Seminar program is to encourage students to explore new and unfamiliar topics. I also liked that Collegium Seminars are designed to promote student collaboration around shared interests and ideas. I decided to submit a proposal for a course, which was selected by the review committee and was offered in spring 2015.

You first collegium seminar has been very popular with students. What’s your perspective on why?

The UW Collegium Seminars are great because they span so many interesting topics! In my course, I am really just taking advantage of the inherent appeal of bioengineering. I think students are interested in learning about bioengineering’s tangible, real-world impact on health care, and how the field is improving quality of life.

Your first collegium course focuses on advancing human health through bioengineering innovation. Will you examine this topic again in your second collegium course in 2016, or explore a new topic?

The overall topic of my next seminar will be the same. However, it was selected as part of a pilot effort by the Husky Leadership Initiative, in partnership with First Year Programs and Undergraduate Academic Affairs Dean’s Office.  This effort aims to integrate the core theme of leadership into the Collegium Seminar courses. My course will help students develop leadership skills by engaging them in reflective activities, guest lectures and group projects.

What have you enjoyed the most about working at UW, and specifically in BioE? What support and resources have helped you succeed here? 

I find working at UW, and in BioE, exciting. I really enjoy working at a university that is constantly refining and implementing new approaches to enhance student learning.

There have been a tremendous number of resources here that have helped me develop my courses and other program components. I’ve worked with consultants from UW’s Center for Engineering Learning and Teaching (CELT) and the Center for Learning and Teaching (CTL) to optimize my teaching and students’ learning. UW organizes numerous on-campus teaching workshops and educational research opportunities.

Here in BioE, we’re fortunate to have the chance to engage with industry professionals and other stakeholders. Their feedback has helped us continuously improve our curriculum and program activities.

I’ve particularly benefited from working with the BioE faculty. They are outstanding educators and advocates of undergraduate education. Their approach to teaching and interacting with students is inspirational, and to me has been a valuable model.  Starting as a junior faculty member with a lot to learn, their mentorship has been really important to me.

The department has supported my professional development, which has allowed me to attend workshops and conferences. Under the mentorship of bioengineering faculty and staff, I’ve gained valuable experience working on committees and had the opportunity to assume leadership roles.

What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a teaching career like you did, instead of a research career in academia or industry? 

I recommend that students interested in this type of career path gain as much teaching experience as possible.  Be proactive about serving as a TA and volunteering to guest lecture in a class. Watch your course instructors closely to learn about different teaching styles. If you can, get involved in a long-term teaching preparedness program. These experiences will help you learn how to design a course, plan a lesson, deliver a lecture and effectively resolve conflicts.

Getting experience teaching in front of class is helpful, but so are leading discussion sessions and tutoring others. Being a Freshman Interest Group (FIG) leader or informally mentoring junior students in your lab are also great places to start pursuing this career path.

Finally, I recommend getting involved in educational research and pursing opportunities to present your scholarly work.  This is a great way to network, and become acquainted with the type of research that people following this career path pursue.