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Alumni Profile

Teaching science and the science of teaching: PhD Program alum Robin Ball

By June 25, 2019September 29th, 2021No Comments

“I approach my teaching as a science, which means reading the literature and trying to do better.”

Robin Ball, PhD Program alum (entering class of 2001)

Robin Ball loves to teach — whether she is teaching undergraduates about human physiology or teaching faculty members how to improve their own teaching. Ball is a lecturer in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) at UC Berkeley, and she is continually improving her teaching by learning about pedagogy and experimenting with new approaches in her classes. She also shares her knowledge with faculty as a facilitator for the Transforming STEM Teaching Faculty Learning Program at Berkeley.

Ball’s excitement about teaching began when she worked as a teaching assistant as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz. Her fascination with cell biology and neuroscience brought her to the Berkeley Neuroscience PhD Program, where she was a member of the first entering class. For her PhD, Ball studied cellular signaling pathways that regulate synapse growth and strength in the Isacoff lab

After doing a postdoc at McGill University, Ball returned to Berkeley to do a part-time postdoc in the Isacoff lab while adjunct teaching at various institutions — primarily Mills College, UC Berkeley Extension, and UC Berkeley. She eventually became a full-time lecturer in MCB, but she still teaches at Berkeley Extension simply for the fun of it. Ball studies the literature on effective and inclusive teaching practices, which has led her to incorporate more student-focused active learning strategies into her classes. She also teaches her students about stereotype threat, which has been shown to reduce stereotype-based disparities in student achievement. 

In this Q&A, Ball shares her advice about teaching and having a teaching career, explains why she still volunteers in the Isacoff lab, and discusses the satisfaction she gets out of doing triathlons. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Rachel Henderson: How did you become interested in neuroscience?

Robin Ball: I always really liked human physiology — just understanding how our body works. There are particular organs I like the best, like the kidneys and the brain, because they’re very complex. But it wasn’t until I took a class in college that I was just totally blown away by how relatively simple the cells are in the brain. They’re either firing action potentials or not, but you get these really complex behaviors from them. I thought that was really fascinating.

RH: What led you to pursue a PhD and to come to Berkeley?

RB: I really liked school. I liked college and wanted to continue learning, so graduate school made sense. I had also done research as an undergrad — we were studying the nerves that make muscles contract. It is so amazing to actually stimulate the nerve and see muscles contract. It really got me excited about doing neuroscience research. 

I’m from Berkeley actually, that’s why I applied here, and I liked that there is a wide variety of research going on. It was also the first year of the Neuroscience graduate program, so I thought it’d be really neat to be in that first year and kind of set the stage for everyone else. So it was a combination of those things. Teaching was also important, the fact that you had to teach for two semesters and that there are undergrads on the same campus, rather than having a medical school where you do your research and then there’s a separate undergrad campus.

RH: So you already knew that you liked teaching?

RB: Yes. Actually, after I took that neuroscience class in college, I was a TA for it the next year and it was just awesome!

RH: Why did you choose to do your PhD in the Isacoff lab?

RB: I really liked the projects going on in the lab and I really liked the environment. Everyone was really friendly and got along and it didn’t seem overly stressful. There was good support. Actually, I still am kind of in the Isacoff lab as a volunteer and it’s still a good environment.

RH: Are you doing research there?

Ball (second from right) on a ski trip with the Isacoff lab in 2018.

RB: No, not really, I’m like the lab historian. I help maintain their fruit fly stocks. Sometimes graduate students come in and they don’t know how to do the dissections, and I’m kind of one of the better ones at doing it, so I’ll teach them that. I help out when I can. In return, I have a nice space with a window where I’m surrounded by other people. It’s just nice to be around research even though I’m not doing it myself. I have another office for meeting with students, but there are no windows and no one else would be in there but me.

RH: Tell me about your experience in the Neuroscience PhD Program.

RB: As the first group, we kind of came up with our own ideas. I saw in some of the other alumni interviews that they referred to Neurofriends [a program-supported student social activity – Ed.] — we did that! Because the MCB grad students had a dinner thing in their first year and we said, “We want free food and we want to hang out together too!” So we initiated that and it was really nice. 

There were only five of us in that year and we really got to know each other well. Then the next couple of years after that it was all really small classes, so we bonded. I also liked hearing about other kinds of neuroscience. I’ve always been more into cell biology, but it’s neat to be exposed to other types [of neuroscience], like cognitive neuroscience and fMRI and things like that. It has ended up being very important actually, for my classes, to have that kind of broad background.

RH: Briefly tell me what your PhD thesis was about. 

RB: We were studying the cellular signaling pathways that regulate synapse growth and strength. We were doing this using the fruit fly (Drosophila) neuromuscular junction. You can express fluorescent proteins in the muscle that can sense calcium levels. So we were doing imaging and looking at the strength of the synapse, and then making mutations in different genes that regulate that pathway.

RH: What was your teaching experience like at Berkeley and did you have any formal training?

RB: No, I never had formal training. In fact, when I was a GSI [graduate student instructor], we did not have GSI training, which they have now. So I was just kind of thrown into it. I taught human physiology and neuroscience lab, and I’m now the instructor of both of those classes, which is kind of nice.

I had a great experience with teaching. It was really nice getting to know the students and helping them understand this complex material that I was excited to know, and to share that knowledge with other people. I was a GSI two times, which was the minimum requirement. But I was also a teacher at Berkeley Extension in my last year in graduate school, because I wanted to get more experience. 

RH: What was your career path after graduating from Berkeley?

Ball at her Berkeley PhD graduation in 2007.

RB: In my last year of graduate school I knew that I wanted to be primarily teaching. I wasn’t sure if I would be doing research or not. At that point I was thinking more like a liberal arts college where you do a lot of teaching, but you still do research with undergrads. Mills College was kind of my ideal for that, since I wanted to stay in the Bay Area. I contacted some professors there and asked if I needed to do a postdoc and they said I did. 

So then I did a postdoc. I used my postdoc as a chance to live somewhere different, since I’ve spent most of my time in California. I went to Montreal. I also wanted to stick with the same experimental system so I could do my postdoc quickly, and it also seemed like a system that I could do at an undergraduate university. We used fruit flies — it’s a good organism for that. So I went to Montreal for a couple of years and that was really fun and a great experience. 

Then I came back here. I hadn’t finished my project from graduate school, and so I started working part-time in the Isacoff lab again as a postdoc just to finish that project and then started teaching part-time. I started teaching as an adjunct. I’ve been at a lot of different universities, but Berkeley Extension and Mills College primarily, and then one class here [at UC Berkeley] in the fall. That has just kind of developed along the way, so that I was able to stop teaching at Mills College and can just be full-time here.

RH: Were you open with your postdoc advisor about wanting to go into teaching?

RB: Yes. I knew my postdoc advisor already, because he was a postdoc here at Berkeley when I was in graduate school in a different lab. I was very upfront with him and he let me teach his class. And same with Udi [Ehud Isacoff]. Some of the best advice I got was just to let everyone know what you’re interested in. I got the job at Mills College because someone had gotten an email about it and said, “Robin likes to teach, let me send that to her.” So it’s helpful if more people know about that.

RH: You’re a lecturer now, which is different than being an adjunct or traditional research faculty. Can you explain what that is and what you like about it?

RB: It’s actually similar to being adjunct faculty. I only teach, I don’t do research. They call it lecturers here, I think because we have a really strong, good union and we’ve been unionized for a while. So we’ve built up this position as something that you can actually do full-time and get paid enough and get healthcare. 

My department values lecturers. I feel like I’m like a partner with the other faculty. In the MCB department, faculty only have to teach a third of a class a semester, so I end up teaching a third here, a third there. I get to work with a lot of different faculty and teach a lot of different classes. 

RH: About how many classes do you teach a semester?

RB: This [spring] semester I’m teaching four, plus one at [Berkeley] Extension that I just do for fun. So four thirds, and there’s a half in there as well. That was one reason why I decided to pursue being at Berkeley as opposed to being at Mills College. At Mills I didn’t really see any sort of advancement. I just would be an adjunct there teaching a bunch of classes and barely making enough to survive, whereas here the pay is decent and you kind of get promoted along the way. This summer I’m going through my excellence review, which happens in your sixth year of teaching. You become a continuing lecturer if you pass through that, and you have a little bit more job security. 

RH: What do you like about teaching?

Ball and her partner viewing the eclipse in Oregon in 2017.

RB: There are lots of things I like about teaching. I like that I’m always learning something new. That’s partly because I’m teaching new classes so I always have to learn new material, but also for some of the more advanced classes, it’s really important to update it — the students demand to know exactly what’s happening at this moment. So I’m in the literature reading journal articles about stem cells or about Alzheimer’s disease, it’s a huge variety. That keeps it really interesting. 

Of course working with the students is great. It’s really nice when they appreciate all the effort that you put into it and when you have someone in your lower division stem cell class say, “I didn’t know I wanted to be a science major until I took this class and now I want to study stem cells!” So that’s really exciting to influence them that way and to get positive feedback.

I like working with other faculty, that’s nice. Then also having a somewhat flexible schedule. I don’t have to check in with anybody if I need to leave early or something. That’s a good thing about academia, and you can wear what you want (laughs).

RH: Do you have a particular approach to teaching or things you do that you think are particularly effective? 

RB: Yes, I could talk a lot about that! Like I said, I was never trained to do this, so I just kind of taught how my professors taught when I was an undergrad — it was mostly lecture based. Then at Mills, I worked with this other teacher. We were teaching a lab class, so it was a small class, but she would ask the students questions and they would respond. I was like, “Oh, that’s a great idea!” So then I built that into my lectures — like, ask this question here, just to make it more interactive.

Then I took a weeklong teaching workshop at SF State run by Kimberly Tanner. Everyone in the Biology Department at SF State has to take this class, but they let other people in too. That was great because it introduced me to education research, and how you can make your large lecture classes more active, and how important it is to get students to talk to each other — that’s how they make their memories and make synaptic connections. Since then, I’ve been trying to do more of that. I can go back to the classes I’ve taught where it was just all PowerPoint lecture and say, okay, let me flip this particular topic around so that the students have to figure it out for themselves. So here’s the question, here’s some important information that you need to know, and now talk to each other. Then you build the knowledge rather than having me just tell it to you. I think that’s really important. 

Right now I’m a facilitator for this program called the Transforming STEM Teaching Faculty Learning Program. It was started by educators at the Lawrence Hall of Science to make STEM classrooms more active and also to teach faculty about social aspects to teaching and obstacles students might be facing in terms of being motivated and how you can address that. I went through that for a year — you read some research papers, and you meet every two weeks with other faculty across the campus in STEM fields and talk about it. Then in the second half of the program, you have to do something in your classroom and they videotape it. I introduced a competition in my large, 400-person, human physiology class where I hand out different case studies and different groups work on different case studies about the brain. Then we have a competition to see who can get their question right. It gets students very excited and it gets them talking to each other, which is important. Now I’m a facilitator for that program and I get all sorts of new ideas from the other participants.

That is definitely a resource that I would recommend for all faculty. We had a workshop for the first two days, and there were definitely some people who were hesitant about this — they were like, “Do I really need to do this?” But we’ve got them all on board now because you just show them the [education] literature. And actually, we rely a lot on neuroscience too — this is what the brain does when your students are learning, and this is why you need to activate prior knowledge first so that they can make those memories. So I think having the science mind makes it easier for the faculty to get on board. 

RH: I saw a video where you are talking about teaching about stereotype threat to your students. Can you talk about what stereotype threat is, why you teach it, and how you teach it?

RB: I first heard about stereotype threat at Mills College because we were trying to make our science classes more inclusive. There’s a great book about it called Whistling Vivaldi — this was research done by Claude Steele and his colleagues. They were looking at why some groups of students underperform in science or math classes. They thought that maybe it has to do with the stereotypes against their groups. For example, the first group that they looked at were black students who were underperforming in their classes. They did a psychology experiment where they have a group of black students and white students and they give them a really hard verbal GRE test that is going to challenge everybody. There’s a stereotype against African Americans that they’re not as good at academics, so the students are going into this really challenging test, thinking, “I’m not going to do well on this, maybe, because there’s a stereotype against me.” They start thinking about that and, “What if I actually do badly? Then I’m going to prove that the stereotype is right.” So they’re thinking about all of this rather than focusing on the test. Their cognitive ability is kind of shifted over towards thinking about the stereotype, so they end up doing poorly on the test as a whole. 

What they found though, is that all you have to do to shift this and get rid of that stereotype is to tell students ahead of time, “This is a problem-solving task.” Rather than, “This is a really hard test and it’s going to be really difficult for you,” just frame it totally differently to say that it’s a problem-solving task, have fun with it or whatever. Then that kind of relieves that stereotype because they’re not thinking about it anymore in that context, and they ended up doing just as well as the other students. 

I got the idea to tell my class about it because we also talked about this in the Faculty Learning Program. One way of helping students not underperform in those stereotype situations is to actually teach them about stereotype threat. Just knowing that it exists and this is why you’re dealing with these things actually helps them do better on the tests. I want my students to do better so I want to teach them about it, but I also felt kind of awkward talking about it in my human physiology course — it’s just kind of coming out of nowhere. It doesn’t really fit in with everything else, we don’t really talk about societal issues in our class. 

So to make it easier on myself, I connected it with one of our topics. When you’re under that stereotype threat, you also have high levels of stress. We talk about stress in the context of a molecule called cortisol — it’s a hormone, the levels go up when you’re stressed out, and it impairs memory and learning. I was going to talk about this anyway in the class, so I just spent 10 or 15 minutes at the end going over stereotype threat. Then I did a poll afterwards to check in with the students, like, “What did you think about that?” Most of them had never heard of stereotype threat and almost all of them were grateful to have heard about it. So that’s a win for me and I still teach it all the time. 

RH: You really think about your teaching, you’re getting into literature and wanting to make a more inclusive classroom — what motivates you to do that?

RB: Because my career is primarily teaching, I want to be the best at it that I can be. Just like someone who’s doing research primarily would spend a lot of time reading literature in their field and try and come up with the best experiments. It’s the same thing, except I’m doing it in the classroom in an educational setting. In fact, I do experiment on the class — I did try that stereotype threat topic out without knowing if it would go over well or not. I’ll try activities in the class and then I can do a poll of the students afterwards: Was it working or not? Did it improve your understanding of this material or not?

I guess I approach my teaching as a science, which means reading the literature and trying to do better. And of course I want my students to do better as well, because these are really interesting topics and I really want them to get it. I’m really excited about neuroscience and physiology and cell biology, and so I want to pass that knowledge on. I also think it’s really important for some of these topics to know about them. It’s really important to know human physiology. Even if you don’t become a doctor, you’re going to probably take medicine at some point. It’s important to have that knowledge. 

RH: Sometimes faculty don’t have a lot of time to work on their teaching — is there any “low-hanging fruit” advice you could give faculty to help them improve their teaching? 

RB: I think the most time-consuming part is actually researching the material that you’re going to put into the lectures and how you’re going to organize it — what exactly you’re going to tell the students. So they’ve probably already done that part because that’s the minimum requirement!

Most people teach with PowerPoint, so just go through your slides that you already have and see — maybe two or three times per lecture — is there something that I can just flip around so that I’m asking the students to come up with information? Or, I’ve shown this figure from this paper, can they describe what it actually means? That’s it. Once you start doing that, it just becomes more regular and you won’t want to just do a lecture. At this point if I’m doing something new, maybe I don’t know exactly what to ask, so I will fall back on the lecture. But as I’m doing it, I’m like, ugh, this is too much of me talking. So then I’ll think about it for next time — where am I going to put in key questions along the way? A good way to start is to change the parts of your lectures that you find boring to teach. 

RH: How do you make your large classes interactive?

RB: For the very biggest one, I use an audience response system called clickers, which limits you to multiple choice so I’m thinking about branching out and trying other things. But I think even having the multiple choice is good. There’s not always just one right answer, I can put in multiple ones and the students will talk to each other about it. Then we’ll have a discussion, like which ones can we definitely cross off. I think it also helps them practice because our tests are multiple choice, just because it’s a large class.

In the smaller classes, I’ll maybe use an app where they can text in an answer. That’s really nice because then you get more voices out of the audience, whereas normally it’s just one or two people always answering. Then in another class, where I teach with a professor who is anti-technology, we just use the chalkboard, but still we’ll have the students talk to each other. This is in the stem cell class, so we’ll do more societal, ethics discussions. We can get pretty good discussion going, but I think allowing students the chance to talk to each other first is helpful so they’re not just put on the spot. 

RH: Do you have any advice for PhD students who are interested in a teaching career? 

RB: It’s actually hard to get a good position with just teaching. I feel like many people will be interested in a liberal arts college or a state college where you have a lot of teaching, but you’re still doing research. For those people I would say it’s helpful to think about your research — can it work in a facility that is not UC Berkeley? You’re going to have to be taking care of your experimental organism on your own and you’re going to have undergrads working with you, so plan that out. Maybe not necessarily for grad school, but for your postdoc, think about that. 

Then definitely try and get as much teaching experience as you can. Besides just the two times you have to teach here, you can teach more, you can teach in the summer, but of course check in with your PI about it. You can teach at Berkeley Extension or at community colleges, which is another good place to get teaching experience. If you’re actually teaching your own class and you’re the instructor of record, I think that looks really good when you’re applying to these jobs.

RH: Do you have any hobbies?

Ball heading for the finish line at the Oakland Triathlon in 2018.

RB: I do triathlons. When I was in graduate school, I was not very athletic at first but I found research very frustrating, just because you can put in a lot of time into your experiments and get results that are not conclusive, and you just have to do it over and over and over. I felt like I was putting so much effort into research, so much time into it, but I just wasn’t getting anywhere, which is frustrating. That’s why I like doing sports, because the harder I train, the better I get. That’s the thing with teaching too, the more effort you put into it, the better it’s going to be. 

RH: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RB: One other thing to mention about getting a teaching position is that I kind of got lucky. Let everyone know that this is what you’re interested in and just take positions here and there. You don’t want to get stuck in the adjunct life forever where you are commuting all the time, but I think that was kind of helpful for me. I filled in for someone at Mills College halfway through the semester and that got my foot in the door there, and then I got more and more teaching. Although I ended up not going there, that would’ve been a way to have a full-time job there. The same thing here, I just emailed the administrator in charge of scheduling and said, “Do you have anything?” She said, “Well, we have this lab class” and I said, “I’ll take it!” So that built into a full-time thing. Just take as many opportunities as you can at the beginning and then try and focus on one after that. I’ve never gotten a job that I actually applied to!

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