Graduate Student Postdoc Spotlight with Eugene Kim from Chemical Engineering

The Graduate Student Postdoc Spotlight features interviews with graduate students and postdocs doing innovative teaching work at WashU. Look out for future installments of this monthly column on our website.

“Don’t worry so much about being a good assistant in instruction, as much as being a human assistant in instruction,” said Eugene Kim, a graduate student in the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering (EECE) in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. Eugene was an assistant in instruction in his department for four semesters, and has also participated in numerous Teaching Center programs and events including the Introduction to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Seminar. Most recently, Eugene facilitated a workshop, “Providing Verbal Feedback,” at the Teaching Center’s two Graduate Student Mentored Teaching Orientation for first-time assistants in instruction in August 2019.

Eugene has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan. He is a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in the lab of Fuzhong Zhang, Associate Professor in EECE at Washington University in St. Louis, where he combines synthetic biology and chemical engineering processes to make adhesive proteins that can be used underwater.

In an interview with the Teaching Center, Eugene emphasized the importance of making personal connections with students to help them feel more comfortable in the classroom. He also discussed how using real-world examples in teaching can make material more relevant to students.

How did you become interested in engineering?

In high school, I tested into a high school with an accelerated STEM program. Math, science, and engineering were always subjects I was good at and interested in. I picked engineering specifically because I wanted to learn how to apply the science I learned in the classroom to hands-on processes found in the real world..

I didn’t know I wanted to study chemical engineering until I got to college. I applied to the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan. I spent the first semester figuring out which field of engineering I wanted to study. I had a predilection for chemistry and chemical processes, but I also knew that chemical engineering was a broad enough field that would give me an avenue to study and do research work related to biology and/or materials production.

Now, I’m in graduate school at WashU. My Ph.D. work is in synthetic biology, in which I genetically engineer microbial hosts for the production of underwater adhesives. It’s pretty much a culmination of all of the experiences and everything I’ve learned throughout high school and college.

What does your research focus on?

Over the last few decades, researchers are interested E. coli, a bacteria cell, for different production purposes because they are fast-growing. My research uses synthetic biology and chemical engineering principles to engineer E. coli to make underwater adhesive proteins. Right now, there are a bunch of adhesives that are commercially available but a majority of them don’t work underwater. We got the inspiration to use mussels, because they’re naturally making those adhesives in the ocean to stick onto a variety of surfaces.

How did you become interested in teaching?

I did not think I’d be interested in teaching when I entered graduate school. In my program at WashU, we actually don’t AI until our second year. In our first year, we just take courses and our qualifying exam to continue on in our program as doctoral candidates.

I taught for the first time the first semester of my second year in thermodynamics. In undergrad, I had some not-so-stellar TAs, so I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted to be the best TA I could be to help students who will eventually become engineers that are innovative and changing society for the better. Now, I would say that I have a good grasp on the fundamentals of teaching, but it wasn’t always that way. Initially, I was really nervous. At that time, I didn’t know about the Teaching Center, so I felt like I had to do everything on my own. It was challenging, but ultimately very rewarding. I won an award for graduate student teaching at the end of the semester. I kept getting better at teaching and enjoyed it more and more. By the end of my last semester teaching, I was sad I was done teaching (my department had many other AIs that had teaching requirements to fulfill), but I’m glad I eventually found the Teaching Center. The center has so many other opportunities for grad students at all levels to learn more about teaching and teaching practices.

What are some of the challenges of teaching, and how do you address them?

Teaching practices and methods are always changing. You can’t just stick to one method forever. You have to be aware of new methods that are getting published or talked about It’s easy to get comfortable with one method or style of teaching, but if you’re not changing with the times, students will notice that and could potentially adopt rejecting or evading tendencies. Nowadays, the way students think depends on what they see on social media and in the real world. So, if teachers aren’t in tune with what’s going on around them, it makes teaching harder and learning less enjoyable for students.

Specifically, in STEM courses, work is often done in teams. I think a difficulty there is that when instructors are taught how to teach, team-based learning is often overlooked or just isn’t a primary focus for some instructors. That’s also what the Teaching Center is good for. I went to Dr. Julia Johnson’s Intro to Team-Based Learning workshop and learned how to structure a course with a large team component. Core courses tend to be harder to incorporate team-based learning into, but as I’ve learned at Teaching Center workshops, there are always ways to incorporate team-based learning into small active learning strategies, for example.

What is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned as an assistant instructor?

New AIs in my department always ask me, “What if I don’t know everything about the course material?” I tell them, you’d be surprised; the majority of students do not have expectations of their AIs to know everything about the course they are assisting with. In my experience, what they appreciate the most is when an AI genuinely cares about them as students and spends the time to learn with them.

I also tell new AIs to put themselves in their students’ shoes. Don’t worry so much about being a good AI, as much as being a human AI. What I’ve learned through my teaching experience is that learning your students’ names and calling on them by their names builds that instructor-student bond. Studies have shown that being on a first name basis with students helps them learn. It makes students feel like they can come to office hours and not be scared to ask questions.

How have Teaching Center programs or events enriched your teaching?

I sought out the Teaching Center after I finished teaching because I needed more opportunities to learn and improve. I scheduled a consultation with Dr. Julia Johnson. In that first session, she taught me all the basics about what the Teaching Center does. I asked about what kind of programming there is because I felt that it would be beneficial for me to have to stand out among job candidates. She taught me about the Professional Development in Teaching Program. Then I started going to a few workshops, just to try it out, and I immediately loved them. I learned a lot about education, pedagogy, and things I had no idea about when I was actually teaching. Dr. Meg Gregory runs workshops that taught me how to write a teaching statement, a diversity and inclusion statement, how to prepare a teaching demo, and create a teaching portfolio. The programming has been really helpful in learning how to teach, learning how to learn, and learning how to develop myself for the job market.

What advice do you have for graduate students or postdocs who are teaching?

A lot of new instructors (and event current, experienced ones) will have the misconception that there’s only one right way to teach. That’s not true. Try new things. Sometimes things will work; sometimes they won’t. It’s a learning process for everyone. One caveat to this is that instructors should be aware if their new method doesn’t seem to be working. Collect feedback from your students and make sure to apply that feedback to your course. Be aware if your new method is working or not, and apply your students’ feedback to your course. Don’t feel that you have to conform to one way of teaching.

Also, be comfortable seeking help with your teaching. The Teaching Center is not here to be the teaching police; They’re here to help instructors find different ways of teaching. The center is good at keeping up with the times, and is always learning about new methods. That saves new teachers the trouble of doing that themselves. Seeking help, and most definitely, trying to find new innovative ways to teach, isn’t something to be ashamed of.

What are you future teaching aspirations, and how do you plan to achieve them?

I’ve started applying to jobs, and I’m looking into positions in which teaching is what I would predominantly do, such as lecturer positions, or assistant professorships in engineering education, where I would also be able to conduct research in engineering education as well. One of my goals is to contribute to the field of pedagogy. Regardless of the position, education research is something I want to continue pursuing. I’m also interested in teaching administration, similar to work done at the Teaching Center. The Teaching Center has also recently provided me the opportunity to design and facilitate a workshop, similar to what the staff does. It was a lot of fun, and it is definitely something I could see myself doing.

How did your experience facilitating a workshop for the Teaching Center’s Graduate Student Mentored Teaching Orientation impact your teaching?

It made me more passionate about not only teaching and learning, but also facilitating workshops to train students to become instructors. I was an AI for four semesters, and I assumed that facilitating workshops would be a similar experience to giving a recitation. It turns out that it’s an extremely different experience. Teaching students course material is very different from teaching students how to teach, which is pretty meta, and in some ways harder to do. There are different ways I have to say things or frame things to fit that narrative for a much broader experience.

What do you want your fellow graduate students and postdocs to know about the Teaching Center?

The Teaching Center staff are a fun, nice, supportive group of people that are good to have in your professional network. The Teaching Center is a place where you can develop your teaching, and it’s also great for professional development. If you’re interested in any of those things, the Teaching Center is the place to go on campus.

Who are some of your favorite teachers, and why?

First is my grandma. To me, she’s the perfect example of someone who is always positive and is always willing to help people. She’s so big on service, and treating people with respect. She is where I get my inspiration from when it comes to the service, respect, and motivational aspects of teaching.

I had a high school teacher named Ms. Bosse. I had her for two semesters, once for Cell Biology and then for Biochemistry. I’ve had many teachers throughout my life that assume students are all the same and will understand concepts in the same way and at the same speed. For a student like me who doesn’t know everything, and doesn’t consider myself a genius, it was generally frustrating learning from these types of teachers. But Ms. Bosse was so fair to everyone. She was always patient and recognized that students all learned differently. All of her students felt comfortable going to her, whether they had a question about the class or about anything in life. She was always there to give her take, and spin the topic in a different way so that any student could understand what was being taught.

Dr. Tadd was the first lecturer I ever had in college. For a lot of research professors, teaching is a lower priority for them because they are so busy with maintaining solid research programs, and at many institutions, teaching is not a critical component for promotion. I’ve always had great lecturers in college and graduate school because they’re able to dedicate more time to their teaching. Dr. Tadd was the first to teach me that that even at an R1 institution, teaching is very important and many people take it seriously. He was one of the first instructors that I had that showed me that a career path focused mostly on higher chemical engineering education was possible.

Interview has been condensed and edited.