Inspiring future medical scientists
By Susan A. Clarke
Even after 25 years in Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine, Dr. Katherine Knight exudes excitement, optimism, and commitment in her role as an educator in its Microbiology and Immunology graduate program. Passionate about teaching graduate students both in the classroom and the lab, she finds it “exciting to be doing not just research with these students but also developing their scientific minds.”
Questions are central to Knight’s teaching philosophy and practice. In the classroom, she rarely lectures but rather uses the Socratic method of questioning the class about course material in order to continuously engage her students. She believes that a crucial part of the didactic process is to help students to discover what they are passionate about, and to give them the tools to pursue their goals.
Says Knight: “Telling students what to do is not my idea of teaching....My strategy is to help students find their way by teaching them how to identify important questions and to devise ways to and the answers.” Right now there are five graduate students in Knight’s lab, with four pursuing PhDs in Immunology and one in the new MS program in Infectious Diseases and Immunology.
The program offers an array of educational opportunities outside of the classroom and lab, many established by Knight as enrichments to an already rigorous program. These include the (now required) first-year weekly journal club, in which a student summarizes a published research paper and leads the group discussion. In the “sampler” seminar series, a student invites three scholars from different fields to provide a short summary of their research. Only the organizer knows the identity of the speakers in advance, who may be from any subfield of microbiology, immunology, or infectious disease, piquing attendees’ interest and adding a sense of spontaneity. The series is well-attended by both faculty and students alike.
Every program activity is designed to be an active learning experience and to stimulate students’ independent thinking. The content of Knight’s Advanced Immunology class is driven by the latest research findings in the field; for each class a recent research paper is chosen to be presented by a student and scrutinized by the group.
For the pre-doctoral preliminary exam, students write a formal research proposal as might be submitted to a federal agency, and then present a departmental seminar summarizing the state of the problem leading to the proposal’s testable hypotheses and defending the proposal. However, the proposed research must be outside of their own specialty area, in order to further broaden and diversify their expertise.
Says Knight, “Our philosophy of training graduate students is to ensure that they have a broad background in microbiology and immunology and are versed in subfields other than their specialty training area.” This diverse and extensive presentation and analytical experience ensures that nearly all of program PhD graduates go into some of the most competitive national and international post-doctoral training programs.
Knight is keenly interested in “best practices” in mentoring, focusing on what motivates and excites a particular student. She is impassioned about her own research and wants her students to feel the same way about theirs. She summarizes her educational philosophy, which is strongly related to Ignatian pedagogy, simply: “I want to help them to be the best scientists that they can be.”