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Dr Robyn Kerr shares her passion for teaching


A lecturer in the Department of Human Genetics in the School of Pathology, Dr Robyn Kerr has a strong focus on teaching and research.

She took some time to give us some insight on research, teaching and preparing students for the postgraduate experience.

What drew you to the field of Human Genetics?

I always wanted to study medicine as I was particularly interested in human biology and human disease. The topics in first year general biology included microbiology, virology and genetics, and from day one I was fascinated by human genetics. It married my passion for solving problems with my interest in human disease.

Dr Robyn Kerr, a lecturer in the Human Genetics Department in the School of Pathology at Wits University

Your PhD was on albinism. Are there any specific factors that draw your interest to this disease, as there are a range of genetic disorders that require attention?

Albinism is nearly 10 times more common in sub-Saharan black African populations than anywhere else in the world. Besides the clinical management issues around skin hypopigmentation and poor visual acuity, albinism presents with an additional layer of complexity in African populations due to myth and superstition. If we do not undertake research and create social awareness around African-specific issues, nobody else is going to.  

You have a focus on undergraduate teaching in a volatile time in education. What challenges have the current demands from both the university and the students themselves placed on educators such as yourself?

Many people who teach science are trained as scientists, not teachers, and this is an immediate challenge. Current large undergraduate class sizes are difficult for both students and teachers. When you have a class of 350 students and there is a disparity in ability, you have to try to teach to cover the bell curve. This marked range in academic ability is not only a challenge for teaching, but also when thinking about where to pitch your assessment.

What are your thoughts around e-learning?

There is much to consider with regards the use of electronic teaching tools. Staff need training in order to use these tools properly. Are the students engaging with the e-learning infrastructure? Do they have the resources to make use of it at home? Is it achieving its goal? Research needs to be done to find out what exactly is working for the students. For this, feedback is needed, but students are suffering from “feedback fatigue” and often do not respond to surveys or questionnaires. Student feedback is however critical to improve the teaching process.

With Wits’ aim to be a top 100 University, one of the aims is to increase the number of postgraduates at the University. Can you suggest ways in which the need for undergraduate learning can be balanced with the demands for more postgraduates?

Undergraduate teaching is fundamental because it provides the source of postgraduate students. The teaching must be exciting enough to entice the students to consider a career in academic research. Crucially, it must expose them to the actual process of research: how to undertake it, how to write it and how to communicate it.

Wits has a strong drive for their staff to produce research, but this can be challenging for staff that are more focussed on teaching. What can be done to aid staff who are in this position?

In order to progress in academia, you have to publish. This is challenging for those in the teaching role which places heavy demands on your time – however there are ways around it. You can align yourself with a strong researcher who has projects up and running and play a co-supervisory role to their postgraduate students. Postgraduate students often struggle with writing and this can be a strategic point to become involved. Alternatively, there is also much crucial research to be done in the field of science education itself. Within the actual education space a wealth of research is possible, and, especially in our context, is actually absolutely necessary.

Do you have any particular methods of coping with the demands of balancing academia and your private life?

Academia is not a 9 to 5 job, and this is a mind-set that you should be comfortable with. However, the advantage of academia is the flexibility – within reason, things like working hours or dress code are not dictated. You can also change your focus and ambition by realising that you may not be the person producing the top class research, but you can be the person who is teaching, inspiring or mentoring the scientist who will produce that research. 

As you have an insight on undergraduates, are there any particular challenges that you see young female students face that are not an issue with male students?

Medicine was traditionally a male-dominated discipline, and while patriarchal structures and attitudes are being changed, certain issues remain. However, I think female students largely face issues that are not necessarily specific to students, but are rather societal issues. Females can be disempowered by the need to support extended family, generally - in putting the needs of others before their own. Gender based violence is a real and terrifying part of life for certain individuals.

Does the current climate of student activism help or hinder the student experience?

It has made institutions stop, think and become more accountable. It also has made people aware of the social context of where the student comes from. However, there could be an element of manipulation on the part of the student -  there is often disruption close to the examinations.

What advice would you give young female undergraduates who are considering post graduate studies in Human Genetics?

Undergraduates need to empower themselves to make informed decisions. Talk to people who can give you real insight into the day to day activities of somebody working in the field. For example, many females are attracted to genetic counselling because of the aspect of people-interaction and the notion of helping others, but without considering the emotional toll on the counsellor. People may not be enthused by the idea of research due the image of the staid, lonely, white-coated researcher. However, when you are answering a research question that resonates with you, it can be amazingly exciting. Know what you are getting yourself into and do not continue with postgraduate degrees simply because they are the traditional next step.

Finally, if you had to give a message from the teaching staff to the University, what would it be?

Teachers need to be taught how to teach.