Professor Tom Wilkinson is a Professor of Barrier Immunity and Infectious Disease at Swansea University, where he leads the Microbiology and Infectious Disease group. He has been instrumental in establishing immunology teaching across all years and programmes taught at Swansea University Medical School (SUMS). Among many other projects, he played a lead role in developing the Wales Immunology Teaching Toolkit, a suite of online resources for students to learn key immunology techniques and experimental procedures. We spoke to Tom about the challenges and opportunities for immunology educators, his most effective teaching methods and what he finds most rewarding.
Tell us a bit about your academic and professional background. How did you first get involved in teaching?
I probably started thinking about teaching around the time I finished my PhD in peritoneal inflammation at Cardiff University; around this time, you start to think of whether to go into research or whether to go into teaching, and I decided to do both. I did two postdocs (2001–2008) before starting my first lecturer position at Swansea University (2008), where I’ve been ever since. When you start your first academic position, you tend to think you’ll be thrown in the deep end of formal teaching. But actually, I’d gained lots of teaching experience throughout my PhD and postdoc positions. I did a lot of undergraduate and postgraduate supervision of dissertation projects, and I think that’s really where I discovered I was good at teaching, and I enjoyed empowering students to learn and develop independent practical skills.
What does it mean to you to win the BSI Immunology Teaching Excellence Award?
While recognition from other professors and teaching staff is always great, recognition from a learned society is really important as it represents best practice in a particular field. It feels great to be acknowledged as one of the best teachers in immunology in the UK, as well as having some much-needed recognition for Swansea University.
Can you describe some of the most effective teaching methods you use to inspire the next generation of immunologists?
Students really listen when it's relevant to real-world processes and events. If you ask any lecturer about their research, they would all say it’s fascinating, but students need to be shown how it’s relevant in the real world. For example, they really enjoy our clinical scenarios online session, where they have to diagnose disease from flow cytometry dot plots i.e., ‘which is the AIDS patient?’, ‘which one is the patient with agammaglobulinemia?’. We also linked our practical about ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) to lateral flow tests for COVID-19, which everyone had been using throughout the pandemic. This is another great real-world example of how these techniques are used. We’ve created lots of online simulations like this as part of the Wales Immunology Teaching Toolkit.
We’d love to hear more about this toolkit. When did you set this up and what prompted it?
This is a collaborative project1 between Swansea and Cardiff Universities that we developed during the pandemic, and it’s essentially a range of immunology and general lab teaching resources that can be freely used and embedded into websites or university virtual learning platforms. At the moment, the toolkit includes simulations of flow cytometry, SDS PAGE, and lateral flow tests (LFTs), but we’ve got a whole list of resources we want to add, such as a cell culture simulation that we’re currently developing. Each module combines video demonstrations of these techniques with quizzes, so that it’s interactive for students. We’ve now got over two years of feedback from students, which we’ve published in Frontiers In Education.2 Now that we’ve returned to face-to-face teaching, we’re using the simulations to prepare students before the in-person labs, rather than replacing them entirely.
How did the teaching and learning environment change after COVID? Are immunology educators facing new challenges and if so, how do you think these can these be mitigated?
Besides the obvious challenges with returning to face-to-face – things like masks and physical distancing – what really struck me was the effect on students’ wellbeing. I was running a second-year practical, and I thought it was strange that so many people were saying ‘nice to meet you’ to each other as they left, until it dawned on me that, 12 or 18 months into their degree, this was their first time meeting each other in-person. Students were really hit hard by the pandemic. While we could take most of their teaching online, there’s little we could do as immunology educators to replace the social aspects, and that’s very challenging.
More generally, basic knowledge and technology is moving rapidly. For Foundation and Year 1 students, it’s difficult to keep the lectures up to date with the latest research because at that stage we’re just focusing on getting everyone to the same level, having come from different backgrounds and teaching boards. I think learning simulations may be the solution to this, as they’re easier to tweak and adjust so that they are up to date each year.
What future challenges and opportunities do you see for immunology education?
There is an excess of information out there. The reality is, students can answer any question by grabbing their phone. But is that answer correct? I think that's the biggest challenge we have: teaching students to find the correct sources of information. Instead of teaching students to absorb information and retain it, we should help them to select good sources of information and how to apply them.
I see a lot of opportunities in big data – we have such a wealth of health data, but we lack experts that can analyse and manipulate it to its full potential. I think this is a key area where we need to offer more training.
Another key challenge within universities is looking after our technical and postdoctoral staff . There’s an established career path for academics to progress up to professorship, but not everybody wants to follow that pathway. Postdocs and technical staff play crucial roles in supporting teaching – there’s no way I could run a lab of 100 or more students on my own – but I don’t think there’s a clear pathway for other routes of career development.
What aspects of teaching do you find most challenging and what are the most rewarding?
Time is the biggest constraint. There just isn’t enough time to do everything to the level that you aspire to! The immunology module I lead started with 53 students back in 2008, now we have 250 students. This is happening UK-wide – more people are going to university, and this also means we’re seeing greater diversity in the needs of different students and how they learn, because it’s different for everyone.
The most rewarding moments for me are when I’m in the lab with students and I can see their cogs turning. I like to go around and discuss the practical with people! I also love getting a perfect answer from a student to an exam question I’ve spent a lot of time developing.
I’d have to say that giving the time back to students is really the most rewarding part – actively being part of workshops, speaking to students and seeing them start to understand something new.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers?
I just want to say again that I’m over the moon to be selected for this award, and I just hope I can keep it going, keep developing more resources, and get other universities to adopt these tools.
- Wilkinson et al. 2021 Reimagining laboratory-based immunology education in the time of COVID-19. Immunology 163 431–435. doi: 10.1111/imm.13369
- Francis et al. 2022 The virtual flow cytometer: A new learning experience and environment for undergraduate teaching. Frontiers in Education 7 doi: 10.3389/feduc.2022.903732