“Advice from an ‘old' professor doesn't always hit home”
The first time Viesturs Simanis gave a lecture, things didn’t exactly go to plan: he lost half his audience in the first 10 minutes! Now, over 15 years later, he’s been named best teacher in the life sciences section at EPFL. His secret weapon? The students themselves.
Viesturs Simanis didn’t start teaching officially until 2006 when his employer at the time, the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC), merged with EPFL. But in practice, Simanis, an associate professor in the life sciences section, has more than 30 years’ experience as an educator under his belt. “I joined ISREC in 1989 [when it was a research-only organization] as a team leader,” he explains. “Teaching was part and parcel of my role.”
“Young graduates joined our lab straight out of university, often with no hands-on experience,” he continues. “We had to show them the ropes of experimental science. What helped me in this task was I saw a lot of myself in them – I was far from a model student when it came to lab work! The experience really cemented my respect for my mentors, especially David Lane, my thesis supervisor.”
Simanis, who holds a PhD in biochemistry, admits – with his typically British sense of humor – that, despite years of practice, his first foray into “proper” teaching in 2006 was very much a mixed bag. “There was little flexibility in the initial classes I co-taught,” he says. “We had to follow a manual to the letter, so I was really just reading from a script.” After losing around half of his 200-member audience in less than 10 minutes, Simanis knew it was time to go back to the drawing board.
Recruiting a handful of good students
“My first move was to contact EPFL’s teaching support department and look to more experienced colleagues at EPFL, so I could learn from them,” recalls Simanis. He soon realized the best way to improve was to make use of a resource right under his nose: the students themselves. “When you rehearse your lectures on your own, you often think your message is getting across loud and clear,” he says. “But once you test out your material on students, it’s another story.” Simanis, a graduate of Imperial College London who wrote his thesis on simian virus 40 (SV40), therefore decided to make student feedback a core element of his teaching practice. Over 15 years later, he remains proud of this technique.
“Every student cohort is different,” says Simanis. “The dynamic in the classroom varies from one year to the next.” To make sure his courses cater to the needs of his students, he proactively asks class representatives for their views. “Their input helps me fine-tune my lessons, especially at the start of the semester,” he says. The general biology class which Simanis has been teaching since 2019 brings its own set of complications: for many of the 180 first-year students who take the course, the material can be quite intimidating. “We have to introduce them to a whole series of biology concepts in the space of just 14 weeks,” he says.
Simanis, who specializes in cell division control and completed his postdoctoral research under Prof. Paul Nurse at Cancer Research UK, is acutely aware of this challenge. “Advice from an ‘old’ professor – someone who hasn’t taken an exam for over 35 years – doesn’t always hit home with students,” he says. So Simanis came up with a plan: to “recruit a handful of good students from previous cohorts as assistants for the exercises.” He explains that the assistants serve as role models for new students. “They’re living proof that you can get through this class!” he says with a smile.
More to life than science
When asked about his teaching style, Simanis pauses for a moment to think. “The material can seem complicated, so I try to keep things simple,” he replies. “I explain the fundamental principles that students will encounter time and again, using a few examples such as metabolism, cell communication and cell division control, then I illustrate how basic biological mechanisms regulate these processes.” Then Simanis continues, this time with a twinkle in his eye: “The regulating patterns in biology can be incredibly elegant. I hope my students find them as fascinating as I do!”
For all his enthusiasm, Simanis has a niggling suspicion that he doesn’t always pay enough attention to the other researchers in his lab. “During teaching periods, my workload means I have less time for them,” he says. “I’m extremely grateful to them for being so understanding.” In one way, this issue will soon be resolved, since Simanis is fast approaching retirement. When asked whether his work ethic could see him stay on at EPFL for another 10 years, his reply is unequivocal: “I think that in science, as in other professions, you have to know when it’s time to stop and embrace a slower pace of life. And anyway, there’s more to life than science. I plan to spend time gardening, cross-country skiing, snowshoe hiking, cycling, cooking and indulging my passion for photography.” It sounds as though Simanis won’t be slowing down after all!