John Barrow is a Senior Lecturer (Scholarship) in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He teaches science to undergraduates across the Medical Science disciplines at the University of Aberdeen. If he was on a game show then his specialist subject would be biochemistry! Below is his story of how he changed from a career in research to one in teaching and how he has never looked back.
"I really didn’t like biochemistry when I was an undergraduate student…not the words you would think a biochemistry graduate and now teacher of the subject would say. This view largely came from the way the subject was taught, so I really felt that things could be different. It was this need to change things that drove me to teach the subject and attempt new ways of teaching, heavily influenced by my journey to becoming a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy."
I am currently a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, having been a Fellow via an accredited Postgraduate Certificate (PgCert) in Higher Education run at the University of Aberdeen. I graduated with a BSc in Biochemistry and then followed the usual science career route of undergraduate degree, then PhD, then postdoctoral research positions. It was during my second postdoctoral position that I made a leap of faith from early career scientist to teacher. I had very little teaching experience, the sum total of which could probably be listed on the back of a postage stamp, but it was those early experiences that really cemented my view that teaching was for me. I had wanted to become a scientist to make a difference, but science is often a slow and laborious process. Don’t get me wrong, science definitely has its rewards, but for me they did not come quick enough, whereas in teaching I could make an instant impact. This ability to make a difference and see a group of students leave the classroom with a smile on their faces having understood a difficult concept or idea had a profound impact on me.
I initially started as a Teaching Fellow in 2009 and was encouraged by our then Director of Teaching to complete an accredited PgCert to get my Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. It was only after I had completed it and looked back on what I had learned that I began to realise my biochemistry and molecular biology teaching did not have to be taught in exactly the same way as they were when I was an undergraduate. This set me on the path to identifying ways that this could change – the subject matter and processes being taught would remain, but how it was taught was the focus of much of my efforts. My main goal: to make biochemistry and molecular biology more accessible to our students, many of whom are not taking these subjects as their main degree discipline, but still require knowledge of the subjects.
The skills and ideas I had learned during my PgCert really helped me engage in this process of change as I was able to base a lot of what I did on pedagogic and discipline-specific evidence. Armed with this knowledge I was able to create new practical classes, new lectures and look into ways that we can enhance the learning experience of our students through technology. Further to the pedagogy, the PgCert allowed me to build networks with colleagues I would never have interacted with. This diversity of experience really had a profound impact on my view of teaching and the values that underpin the role, and this is where having HEA recognition allows you to demonstrate this in a meaningful and recognisable way. It also allowed me to provide evidence of my teaching in promotion applications, and I firmly believe it helped me to secure promotion to Senior Lecturer.
After several years of changing teaching practices on my courses and our degree programmes I began to realise the impact my teaching was having on our students, so I decided to re-engage with the HEA Fellowships and apply for Senior Fellowship.
I think very few people (certainly in the UK) enjoy writing about themselves and what they have achieved – I would much rather quietly get on with the job. That said, the process of writing my Senior Fellowship application really helped me reflect on some of the ideas and developments I have overseen from concept to inception. Writing the application also allowed for many networking opportunities with colleagues from across our institution through meetings and writing workshops. This certainly made the process an easier one as it allowed your application drafts to be peer reviewed as well as giving you that extra encouragement when you had a touch of writers block.
Becoming an HEA Senior Fellow is an honour and it allows you to evidence your high quality teaching in a way that is widely recognised. If you’re thinking of applying for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy at any level, my advice is to go for it – it really will help you reflect on your teaching practice and let you highlight all of the great things you are doing as an educator!
You can find out further information on HEA Fellowship here.