Learning to teach – teaching to learn

Approximately 30 seconds after we enter the room, we get accustomed to the lack of light. With dark, blackout curtains separating us from the first rays of blooming spring outside. All for a good purpose. All of us will learn something today.
We are in the microscope room. The darkness keeps all our attention to the light reflecting back from the microscope slides. I adjust the focus, find the vibrant colours on the glass and turn to my students who stand as if around a bonfire, curious but distant.

One of them exhales with amazement, “Wow! Are these shiny things stem cells?”.


Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

It has been 5 hours since the overly familiar sound of my alarm clock alerted that I should get my head up, away from the pillow and put my feet on the ground. These days, my mind jumps into the real world and starts running much faster than my body. Instead of my reflection holding a toothbrush, I ran down the checklist on the mirror: get more gloves, bring the antibodies, divide the solutions into tubes, print extra protocols… I told them to bring the protocol yesterday during the lecture, right?

Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

My heart races with my steps on the way to the lecture. Trying to sweep out the jitters, I remind myself that I once was sitting on the other side of the lecture hall. Now, go in front of that whiteboard and start talking. What if I can’t answer a question? I hope I don’t look silly.
A few surprised faces turn to me and then back to their friends when they realize that I – thin, curly-haired PhD student who looks like an excited electron – will be giving the lecture. My eyes scan the room for a hint of interest among the young, unmolded minds. They seem very far away. Or is it me? Suddenly the spatial distribution of the lecture hall feels quite strange from the teacher’s point of view. They are sitting on top of a hill and I am shooting stem cells with a slingshot.

I leave the lecture hall with a little worry walking beside me.
Did my words manage to jump up from the stage and reach out to them?

Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

My feet move in small but quick steps while I orchestrate the preparations along with the teachers’ team. A healthy mixture of engaged and impatient 1st-year Biomedicine students are scattered around the laboratory where we carry out the lab practical. Like many things you do for the first time, this gives me a little tingly sensation in my stomach as the clock hits 12.

This lab practical didn’t exist before. In the previous years, I have been assisting in another lab but this time I am lucky to be involved in the planning and preparation of a new laboratory practical, from the idea to reality. Now, I get to run the show and I am nerve-cited: pretty nervous and excited at the same time.
Before I start to teach, all my teacher champions briefly sprint in front of my eyes, all smiling: “It will be great!”.

After a brief summary of common sense lab rules, I recap today’s experiment. Self-formed groups will now march to the cell culture room on my lead and mark their territory to work with neuronal stem cells.
Here we go.
Any questions?

Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

“Why is this called pipetboy?”
Very good question. I wonder the same. Why do those pipets have a gender?! Other questions are easier. “Why do we permeabilize the cells? How does the antibody recognize the target?”

Analogies save my day. Phew!
I mean, except for the pipetboy question.

Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.


The motion picture rewinds during the brief period when my students await anxiously to see the results of their own experiment. Backwards. There I was, just like them, in my first undergraduate year, in a white coat and filling my lungs with the laboratory air. Naive but curious, inexperienced but committed. Just the thought of seeing the results of an experiment I had done myself would sweep my feet off the floor.
Fast forward ten years, that amazement transformed into daily conversations about such results. Yet, the joy of sharing the stories of them is the same if not stronger. Just like the young lady in front of me looking at the stained cells with wide-open eyes, followed by an inevitable smile I very much recognize.

“Woaw! Look at these neurons!” – “They look green!” – “We did it!”

Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

I can hear the seconds in the silence. Some groups are not as lucky to see the green light. As the disappointment and self-judgement weigh in, they deflate very fast but I have no intention of letting them get discouraged with this. I try my very best to underline that failure is the best way to learn. Wholeheartedly.

Because I know it.
Because I failed too.

“Things will not work sometimes. It happens to all of us, yes even to Nobel-winning scientists. We need to focus on what we can learn from it. Find a potential pitfall and change it. Then try again.”

Did it work?
I hope.

Watching some students leave the dark microscope room excited, enlightened and with a sense of accomplishment opened a valve in my lung that gave way to fulfilment.

At the end of the day, we all learned something.

“When one teaches, two learn.” ― Robert A. Heinlein

Do you also get nerve-cited about teaching?
If you are wondering about the science teacher career path in Sweden, checking out the interview with a science teacher and KI alumni Sanja could be the best thing you can do now. (:

( The cover illustration gives a basic overview of the laboratory practice I just told you about and it is prepared by me.)

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