Excellenece in Teaching Award: Megan Lamkin

Excellence in Teaching Award winner Megan Lamkin. Photo by Olivia Bruner.

The most eloquent compliment Megan Lamkin’s students pay to her teaching is understood without them saying a word. On this chilly Tuesday morning late in the fall semester, many undergrads would rather be sleeping in or procrastinating under their blankets with Netflix. But the Excellence in Teaching Award winner’s review session for her microbiology class, although both early and optional, is comfortably crowded. Eager science majors gather with their laptops and notebooks around the high, black-topped tables of the laboratory in Rieveschl Hall.

She doesn’t let the students stay quiet for long. As Lamkin goes through the scores of images her class will need to identify for their lab practical exam, she’s constantly questioning, gauging the knowledge of the room and having students fill in key points about what she calls “the story of what’s happening.” On one slide, a series of test tubes with differently colored media becomes a way to tell what nutrients a species of bacteria needs to survive. On another, she gestures to the red color of stained bacterial rods as the critical element in diagnosing a patient with tuberculosis.

Although her class starts out nervous about the volume of information they need to master, Lamkin’s hard-driving confidence is contagious. “You’ve done it so many times before,” she tells her students in reference to Gram staining, a lab technique they’ll need to repeat on the exam, and the group nods in agreement. By the end of the session, the class is laughing at an image of a giant plush microbe while correctly identifying the flagella it uses for mobility. Lamkin even shuffles in front of the whiteboard to drive home the point, her hands gliding outward in a semblance of bacterial motion.

Beyond the Lab

Megan Lamkin leads a microbiology review session. Photo by Olivia Bruner.

Poise and physicality define Lamkin’s instruction, and as she discusses her path to teaching in the microbiology lab, she shares how she developed those qualities in settings outside of the traditional classroom. Much of her confidence, for example, she attributes to her practice of Jeet Kune Do, the martial arts system founded by Bruce Lee. In Lamkin’s words, the style’s primary philosophy “is being calm under situations of extreme duress and constantly practicing that.” That attitude is equally helpful for facing an opponent in the ring, getting through doctoral qualifying exams or calming a classroom of frazzled microbiology students.

In fact, Lamkin leads biweekly Jeet Kune Do classes at a facility she founded in 2013 in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Northside. The material might be different, but Lamkin says she approaches the lab and the dojo in a similar light. “I try to create that bubble of positivity and confidence, reminding [my students] of what they can do and how well they’re doing rather than trying to scare them into thinking they’re not good enough,” she explains.

Lamkin’s style is also informed by the position she held before her current assistantship: director of the Outdoor Learning Lab gardens and greenhouse at St. Rita’s School for the Deaf. “I didn’t know sign language when I started there,” she says, “so for the first years they gave me interpreters. But I didn’t like teaching through an interpreter, so I would be watching them and trying to figure out how to do lessons.” After two years of observation and night classes, she was teaching sign language herself.

That skill in manual communication comes through even when she presents to her hearing students. Her arms are rarely still when running the classroom: she highlights specific parts of slides, draws graphs of data or smacks her hands together to emphasize important facts. At one point in the review session, she reaches up into the air to grab invisible nitrogen molecules and drags them down toward her feet, mirroring her discussion of how soil bacteria supply nitrogen to plant roots.

Lamkin has gone beyond her previous experiences with the help of UC's Graduate Association for Teaching Enhancement (GATE). This student-run organization encourages graduate teaching assistants to think critically about their instruction and make improvements based on the latest educational research. The principles of active learning Lamkin studied in one GATE workshop drove her to reorganize her use of time in the classroom. Now, she tries to "break the class up into little segments, where you have some group quizzes, some teamwork activities and short lectures in-between."

Charles Henry Turner, UC's first black master's graduate in biology. Photo courtesy of the African American History Program.

Bridge to Biology Success

All of this training came together in one of Lamkin's most notable achievements, her design of the biology syllabus for the Dr. Edward N. Prather Summer Bridge Scholars Program. This seven-week experience prepares incoming UC freshmen from underrepresented minority groups to succeed in the college environment. Lamkin uses her innovative class organization to cover the full gamut of topics a freshman biology class might encounter, from microscopy to evolution and scientific writing.

Throughout the summer, she weaves in field trips that showcase the real-world applications of biology. "I'll do a molecular biology week, and at the end of that week we'll go to Children's Hospital, UC Medical Center and a biotech startup like Meridian Biosciences," she says. Her favorite trip is also the least far afield: a walk through Burnet Woods, the Cincinnati city park directly opposite the university. Lamkin teaches her students how to identify local trees, offers them samples of edible redbud flowers and points out the galls made by insect parasites of plants. "When somebody says, "Man, I never thought I wanted to learn about plants, but now I do," that's what I want to do."

Lamkin also uses the Summer Bridge Scholars Program to provide role models for future minority scientists. "If I'm a black or Latino student, and all I hear is this European thread [of scientific figures], I'm not going to envision myself taking part in this process or achieving a leadership role in this field," she explains. To that end, she introduces figures such as Charles Henry Turner, the first black student to receive a graduate degree in biology from UC. After graduating in 1892, Turner went on to a distinguished career in entomology; among his many accomplishments, he explored the intellectual abilities of insects and discovered that honeybees could see in color.

After she finishes her doctoral program, Lamkin hopes to continue her focus on what she calls motivational teaching. "In a nutshell, I want students to remember my class as one that blew minds, cultivated confidence and inspired a sense of professionalism," she offers as a teaching philosophy. And based on the smiles of the students who leave her microbiology review session, she's already putting that philosophy into successful action.

Written by Daniel Walton, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School