Teaching can sometimes create a separation between students and professors; there is the lecturer and the lectured. For Jennifer Dennis, MS, PhD, Chair of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences and Professor of Anatomy at Kansas City University (KCU), the best element of teaching is the opportunity to be shoulder to shoulder with students. She proves that mentorship and sponsorship can flourish when the separation is eliminated.
Dennis specializes in teaching embryology and craniofacial malformations at KCU. With this focus, she has the unique opportunity to work with medical students from year one to their board exams. This allows her to teach the concept, expand on its complexity, and then watch students understand it in real-world situations. “There are many independent studies, and my students will revisit their embryology and human development concepts. I’ve had multiple students come back after that independent work and tell me how neat it was to see the concepts we worked on actually happen,” Dennis said.
Dennis strives to break down the boundaries between herself and her students. This is supported by lab work, where she is a teaching anatomist, working side-by-side with the students and seeing what they are seeing. “In the lab, you can have normal conversations and support their learning in ways that you can’t in a lecture environment,” Dennis said. She carries this same concept to anatomy fellowship students. “In working with fellows, there certainly are educational components, but also it’s mostly a person-to-person role model and mentorship opportunity,” Dennis said. “These elements of my job are hands down the best!”
Dennis found this specialty and professional focus as a graduate student at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “I did my PhD in a laboratory at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. Part of that process was touring through multiple labs and gaining experience in different projects. In my rotation, I found a lab that studies craniofacial development and other researchers working on other areas of embryology. It was incredible, and I asked to stop my rotation there and stay with that team,” Dennis said. That experience allowed her to learn from people studying heart anomalies, nerves in the digestive system, and a core of excellent embryology and human development.
Dennis directly benefitted from excellent mentors and sponsors in her education and strived to pass that support on to her students. “I had an incredible mentor during my undergraduate work at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. She was one of my first female professors and created an exceptionally open environment for her students,” Dennis said. This example of mentorship created an early competency for Dennis to speak with other scientific professionals. This confidence resonated with Dennis later in her career because this mentor was female. “She was advanced in her career and doing much to bring her students up with her,” Dennis recalled.
The concept of sponsorship is also a crucial element of her experiences and what she hopes to provide students. “It’s more than simply being supportive. Are you forwarding invitations to forgotten colleagues? Are you making special efforts to mention specific people’s names? I have had advisors specifically ask for me to be included in things. Are you recommending someone else to fill your spot when you can’t attend an event? This is the way to sponsor people, especially women and underrepresented minorities in STEM and medicine,” Dennis said.
When the structure of teaching in the traditional sense is broken down, what is left is people. How can students be mentored or sponsored if leaders aren’t working side-by-side with them and know them? For Dennis, the answer is to get off the stage and into the lab. By learning who her students are and how she can support their growth, the next wave of students will have a more powerful impact on the world.