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BSI Immunology Teaching Excellence Award: interview with Dr Sophie Rutschmann

Dr Sophie Rutschmann image

Dr Sophie Rutschmann is Programme Director for the MSc in Immunology and the Faculty of Medicine Academic Lead for Digital Education at Imperial College London. Among her innovations is a module of learning focused on the BSI Congress event, and a suite of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in immunology, which has been hugely successful and is expected to have a significant global reach. We spoke to Sophie about the substantial impact she has made on the way teaching is delivered, the challenges and opportunities in higher education and what this award means to her.

Congratulations again on winning the BSI Immunology Teaching Excellence Award! What did it mean to you to win this award?

An awful lot, actually! Recognition from colleagues and peers is always nice, but receiving an award from an external body to your institution is even more meaningful. I see my current role as facilitating connections between researchers and students, by putting the right experts in the right room at the right time so they can share and showcase their work. To me, having those experts in the field recognising my work in education means I'm doing something right.

That’s wonderful to hear. I’d love to know more about your professional background. How did you first get involved in teaching?

When I was younger, I wanted to be a social worker because of the human interaction side of it, but I went to study biology at university instead which I truly enjoyed. All along I told myself: “as long as I enjoy it, I will continue in science; if not, I will find something else”. I did a PhD on Drosophila's humoral immune response using a genetic approach and then a post-doc in California on mice using the same approach. Then, as a Lecturer at Imperial, I used genetics again to identify new genes required for the development and maintenance of memory CD8+ T cells during acute and chronic viral infections.

Alongside running my research lab, I had three children and, when I came back from maternity leave, I had the opportunity to get fully involved in education leadership in our intercalated BSc and our MSc in Immunology. I always found teaching extremely rewarding as it has the human element that I was always passionate about, and I got the chance to work in a top university, with brilliant students, colleagues and funding for education initiatives. There are challenges around managing our students’ experience, but it really is an amazing environment. As Academic Lead for Digital Education in the Faculty of Medicine, I carry out leadership and strategic work, so spending time in the classroom keeps me grounded! 

You’ve mentioned some aspects that you find rewarding and some that are more challenging. Can you talk a bit more about those?

Let’s start with the positives. I love seeing students develop their skills so that one day, they can make a difference in the field of immunology or another area if science isn’t for them. I do bump into some of them doing PhDs and postdocs at the BSI Congress which is incredibly rewarding! It’s also brilliant to be able to interact with young people as they challenge you and keep you on your toes, and you help them navigate adult life, outside of pure science – that’s exactly what I’d like for my kids going to university, knowing that they have that type of support and environment.

There are of course several challenges. Firstly, I think we ought to move away from viewing teaching as just transmitting knowledge. For me, it’s about skills, both practical and intellectual. We need to convey to the next generation the importance of thinking critically, being curious and continuing to ask questions.

Another challenge specific to the UK is the current funding system in higher education. I think it has a negative impact on the student experience – it results in a very assessment-driven way of learning in which paying increasingly high fees (in particular, when compared with the rest of Europe) comes with the expectation of an immediate return on investment. It’s a big challenge to view learning as something so transactional, and in my opinion, not what universities should be about. This heavy emphasis on fees comes at the detriment of our original ethos to nurture the next generation.

Inspiring the next generation of immunologists is vital to the future of the field. I wonder if you can describe some of the most effective teaching methods you use to engage and motivate students to learn?

For me, an authentic approach is crucial to really engage students. Knowledge is available everywhere nowadays, so moving away from didactic teaching is incredibly important. The classroom is a safe environment for them to try (and fail) at new things whilst they explore the kind of activities that are carried out in real life in immunology and develop skills they’ll need.

For example, we changed our usual approach to MSc students attending BSI Congress so they can make the most out of it. Now, they form groups and come up with a strategy to actively seek out the leading edge of research on a specific topic during the conference. The learning outcome isn’t just the knowledge they acquire, but also working as a team, condensing information, compiling references, presenting a scientific argument, being unbiased, etc.

Another highlight from your innovative teaching approach is the development of a suite of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in immunology. Can you talk a bit more about the set up and the progress so far?

The idea came as I was redesigning our MSc curriculum for a blended delivery, with a combination of digital and on-campus elements. We were producing a lot of digital content and I thought it’d be good to use it to further our mission to educate people.

The idea became a project with my colleague Dr Maggie Trela, who was also nominated for this award, when we decided to create a suite of MOOCs going from innate immunity to adaptive to autoimmune diseases, cancer immunology, infectious diseases, etc. – an overview for people with a background in molecular and cellular biology who want to engage more with immunology. We launched the course a few months ago and already have over 4,000 people enrolled, high quality reviews and a high completion rate.

It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster as it’s a significant amount of work but I think engaging with the wider world is crucial as scientists – as the pandemic has highlighted, an important part of our job is to educate non-experts too. For me, if someone who’s done the online course can explain autoimmunity to someone in their family, then I’ve done my job! And, it’s fun to do!

That’s incredibly valuable. So, what now? What do you think the future holds for immunologists and immunology educators?

We must make our work more visible and reach out more than ever before. Also, I think we need to think about the possible impacts of the rise of artificial intelligence and educate students about its pros and cons. Finally, I think immunology is a complex field and research a challenging profession, but we need to continue to build a strong workforce.

Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

Well, you can’t see my desk, but the BSI award is just here. I see it every day and it really means a lot, coming from a colleague’s nomination and external experts, it gives you the extra push you need to keep going. So, nominate your colleagues!

Interview by Teresa Prados.

The BSI Awards Ceremony was held on 20 April 2023. You can read more about the all the winners of the 2023 BSI Awards here

Dr Rutschmann will be taking part in the BSI Teaching Affinity Group's session on 6 December 2023 at BSI Congress. Find out more here.