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Former Student Now Teacher for Biotech Program

Photo of Kyle Brimacombe Kyle Brimacombe graduated in 2009 with a master’s in biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University. He did a JHU and Center for Cancer Research/ National Cancer Institute Fellowship, with a concentration in molecular targets and drug discovery technologies.

A student in the classroom just a few years ago, Brimacombe decided to return to Johns Hopkins to teach. This semester – his first – he is teaching Cell Culture Technologies at the Montgomery County Campus in the evenings. His day job is as a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health, where he works to find new potential drug candidates for a variety of diseases, including rare or neglected disorders that have been historically underserved by the pharmaceutical sector. Cell culture, he said, is an integral part of this research, so Brimacombe practices what he teaches on a daily basis.

Hopkins Happenings asked Brimacombe to describe his transition from student to instructor.

What did you think of your professors?

They were great! Most of my professors had day jobs in the field that they taught, so the students really got to learn from people who had a firsthand working knowledge of the subject matter. My professors always worked to incorporate the latest advances in their particular field into the subject matter, so we were often getting a timelier lesson in these topics than any textbook could provide. I think this is one of the true strengths of the Hopkins graduate programs.

What type of student were you?

I was always the quiet kid in the back of the classroom, so it’s an ironic twist of fate that I’m now at the front of the classroom, spending all of my energy trying to get my students to speak up. It makes me wish I could go back in time and be a bit more interactive in my classes, because the dynamics of an open and active classroom definitely seem to help everyone learn more effectively.

Why did you decide to come back to teach?

When I was approached about this teaching opportunity, I was really excited about the prospect of returning to Hopkins on the other side of the classroom, though I was pretty nervous and intimidated by the thought of it. Hopkins has built a stellar reputation for these graduate programs, and the students have all worked extremely hard to get to where they are, so I definitely didn’t want to let anyone down.  Despite the challenges though, it was just too good of an opportunity to let pass, so I gladly agreed to teach.

Also, within the biological sciences, the common assumption is that a Ph.D . is required for most high-level research or academic positions.  However, Hopkins has worked hard to design Masters and graduate programs that provide comprehensive working knowledge in very focused areas of study, and in a format that is much faster and more nimble than traditional Ph.D. programs. A small part of me also wanted to teach to prove that degrees aren’t the only currency for moving ahead in science.

Describe the lab course you are teaching, Cell Culture Technologies.

It’s designed to teach students the foundational techniques needed to grow cells in a laboratory, and is geared toward students who have little to no experience with cell culture.  The technique itself is probably one of the most versatile skills one can have in biology, as just about every laboratory in the world relies on cultured cells in one capacity or another. So we’re aiming to get students up to speed in an area that will immediately make them stronger candidates for any lab position.

How’s it going?

I think it’s going really well. It’s certainly a learning experience for me, trying to figure out what teaching styles and lab exercises provide the best learning environment for everyone.  However, I’m lucky to have an eager and active group of students in my class, so they’re definitely helping to make this learning process much easier.

What’s the biggest difference about being on the other side of the classroom podium? Any surprises?

For me, the biggest difference is the amount of energy and enthusiasm you have to bring to the room as an instructor. It’s one thing to capture students’ attention during any lesson, but it’s another thing altogether to do it from 6-9:30pm on a weeknight, to a room of people who are often coming off a full workday themselves. The biggest challenge has definitely been to step outside of my former “quiet student” self to try to keep the class’s attention, but I’ve been surprised at how willing my students have been to stay engaged.

How has the program changed since you were a student?

It seems like Hopkins has been very active in updating courses to make sure they stay up-to-date and relevant, which is no small feat in the biological sciences. My lab alone has a great deal of new equipment, including some things I wish I had for my everyday lab work, so the program seems to be doing a great job adapting to an ever-changing field.

CATEGORY: Academics