In the latest instalment of our Staff Profile series, we spoke to Dr Sophie Rutschmann about balancing her two roles as a Senior Lecturer and Academic Lead for Postgraduate Education in the Faculty of Medicine, the far-reaching benefits of teaching, and fostering an effective learning environment for students.
Introduce yourself – who are you and what do you do?
I am a Senior Lecturer in Immunology. Around half of my time is spent leading the MSc in Immunology, which means organising, teaching and looking after our students. In the other half of my time, I am the Academic Lead for Postgraduate Education in the Faculty of Medicine. In this role, I aim to develop the Faculty’s education portfolio and work with the programme teams to maintain and improve the quality of our education. Recently, we have actively engaged with Imperial’s new Learning and Teaching strategy and are in the process of finishing the Curriculum Review of our postgraduate programmes, which has been a rather intense but rewarding process! This will lead to exciting changes in the way we teach – more specifically we’ll be progressively introducing more interactive sessions with our students.
When did you first join the Department, and where were you working or studying before?
I joined Imperial at the end of 2006, following a post-doc at The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.
What do you think are the main challenges faced by our students today, and what do you think can be done to help overcome them?
Students invest a lot of money into their education for relatively limited certainty about their professional future. This can generate a significant amount of anxiety. Supporting them in developing to the best of their abilities, providing them with honest and constructive academic feedback, and using our knowledge as professionals to prepare them to their future are ways in which I believe we can help them. We should also be supporting them in developing their perseverance, resilience and the ability to think critically so that they will thrive, regardless of what the world throws at them.
What do you think is the most important factor in creating an effective and positive learning environment for students?
I believe that the best learning environment is one where we all – both students and staff – have fun, enjoy what we do, and convey our passion; a place where we are challenged, but feel safe to take risks and make mistakes, and where we interact in a trusting, fair and transparent way.
How does your background in research inform how you deliver your teaching?
I am not currently active in STEM research, but that doesn’t mean I cannot use my experience to teach my students the skills I have learnt on the job (and that can’t be found in an immunology textbook)! Efficiently reading papers, finding evidence, assessing it critically, being creative, and troubleshooting effectively are only some examples. Bringing activities from the scientific community into the classroom has been at the forefront of my work and is informing the research I do in education.
What do you think researchers can gain from getting more involved in teaching?
They directly train the next generation of doctors, scientists and citizens, which is an important but rewarding responsibility. Some of these students will join their labs as PhD students and produce strong data for their next grant application. In addition, they will get the excitement and reward of interacting with our students and seeing them develop and mature. Finally, and rather pragmatically, by engaging with the education provision, they also contribute to the financial health of our Department and Faculty.
What do you find to be the most rewarding part of your role?
Seeing students develop, mature, grow their passion for science and succeed during their time with us. I am also lucky to have an amazing team who are all working extremely hard to deliver on our projects. Their professional development, and seeing them progress, is also extremely rewarding to me.
…and the most challenging?
Something that is absolutely key to any successful project: efficient and effective communication. Being a good communicator is challenging and energy consuming… and I have to confess that my French background is still leading to some cultural ‘discoveries’; things do not always come across the way I would like them to, but I’m working on it!
Your favourite thing about working in the Department?
Interacting with passionate and smart colleagues and students.
What are the main ways that you think the Department can improve its organisational culture?
The Department has already made some important changes in the last few years, notably through the work of the Athena SWAN committee. I hope that the coming changes in its structure will lead to increased fruitful collaborations and interactions – which are key to great science – and more recognition of other activities.
What are your biggest passions / hobbies outside of work?
I have a real passion for rock-climbing, but not having enough time (or mountains!), I run, swim, cycle and practice yoga to stay (relatively) sane and balance out my love for baking!
And finally: if you were exiled to a desert island but allowed one luxury item, what would it be?
I recently had the privilege to join colleagues for a symposium in Ethiopia. The few days there have put the concept of ‘luxury’ into perspective…I would take a picture of my family.
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