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Immunology Teaching Excellence Award

We’re pleased to announce the winner of our 2020 Immunology Teaching Excellence Award, Dr Nigel Francis. Our Teaching Excellence Award highlights excellent immunology teachers in UK higher education institutes. The award recognises those who show a passion for immunology and education, along with the communication skills to make these complex subjects accessible to their students. Read the interview below to find out about how he got involved in teaching, the most rewarding aspects of teaching immunology and his ideas for mitigating the new challenges that immunology educators are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Nigel is Associate Professor at Swansea University Medical School. He studied Pharmacology at the University of Bath before completing a PhD in Immunology at the University of Birmingham. After a postdoctoral position at Cardiff University he started working at Swansea University, where he has helped establish immunology teaching across all years of their undergraduate programmes. He is a member of the BSI, fellow of the Royal Society of Biology and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Nigel is also the co-creator of Immunology Wars, an educational resource aimed at describing the basic functions of the immune system through the Star Wars movies.

Tell us a bit about your academic and professional background. How did you first get involved in teaching?

My interest in immunology probably started when I watched Polly Matzinger on BBC Horizon discussing the Danger Model – I was lucky enough to see her talk live several years later. I studied Pharmacology at Bath and during that time I spent an intercalated Masters year studying immunology in Cardiff, which confirmed for me that this was what I wanted to pursue, so I did a PhD in Birmingham and then returned to Cardiff for a postdoc position, both focusing on innate immunity. At the end of this position an opportunity to take a tutor position at Swansea University came up, which was mainly a teaching role, but allowed me some time to continue my research and help expand the scope of immunology within the Medical School at Swansea, so that we now have modules with immunology elements across all years of the programmes.

What aspects of teaching do you find most challenging and what are the most rewarding?

The most rewarding aspects are seeing students become enthusiastic about a subject that you are passionate about, those lightbulb moments when things start to make sense and students realise how amazing the immune system is. To then follow students that you have taught as they go on to make their own mark on the field is immensely gratifying. One of the most challenging things about teaching immunology is the complexity of the subject itself. Immunology is one of those subjects where you need to be able to see the big picture, but also need to understand what all the component parts do, so it’s a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle – you have a pretty good idea of what the end product should look like, but until you put those individual pieces in place it can be a bit of a mess! Finding ways to break these concepts down and make them engaging and accessible for students can definitely be a challenge.

Can you describe some of the most effective teaching methods you use to inspire the next generation of immunologists?

Anything where the students are actively engaged or are thinking about the topics they are studying, whether that is peer teaching through discussions, using polling software in lectures but formatted as a quiz show or having topics decontextualised to make them more memorable or providing a different way to think about the subject, which was really what the Immunology Wars project was aiming to do. Alongside that, helping students to develop their transferrable or soft skills is fundamentally important. At the end of the day we are aiming to produce science practitioners, so they need to have the skills that will allow them to be successful in the workplace as well as the subject specific knowledge.

Can you tell us a bit about the importance of finding innovative teaching methods to engage with a range of students and its potential impact on their careers and the immunology field?

For me the first thing to ask is, what is innovative? There are some things that I have done that I wouldn’t even think twice about, but when I have described them to others, they have found them to be innovative, so I guess innovation is unique to each individual. What it all comes down to I suppose is passion and enthusiasm for your subject – if you can find new ways to present information you’re going to come across as more enthusiastic, which in turn makes your students more interested in the subject you’re teaching. Hopefully, coming up with novel ways to teach makes things more memorable and maybe one day those students will go on and teach others by adapting those ideas.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent remote working and learning environment, what do you think are the challenges immunology educators are facing and how can these be mitigated?

If I had the solution to this, I would be a very popular academic! The biggest challenge is probably providing students with enough hands-on time in the lab to gain experience in the techniques they will need, so finding ways to maximise what they get out of the limited lab time is key. Based on my involvement with the #DryLabsRealScience network the main ways people are looking to do this is to cover more of the theoretical knowledge and understanding of why techniques are used pre-lab, allowing students to really focus on what they are doing in the lab. The ways to do this tend to be focused around the use of videos, animations and simulations, so hopefully students will arrive in class asking more of the ‘so what does this result mean?’ type questions rather than the ‘how do I do this?’ questions.

Can you tell us a little more about the Immunology Wars resource?

Well I’m a Star Wars fan, but I guess it really started with a student who always used to sit near the front of my classes, and she had an amazing graphic of Darth Vader taking a bite out of the Apple logo. When I first noticed it, I was preparing a lecture on how to write an abstract and decided to see whether I could use the framework that I had set out to summarise the latest Star Wars film. That’s the first and only time I’ve had a round of applause at the end of a lecture. That got me thinking and I knew there were several students who were also big Star Wars fans and the idea of explaining immunology by aligning it to the stories and characters of Star Wars was created. The students have written whole episodes or sections of the website and it’s an ongoing project that we hope will continue to grow and gain more interest.


Congratulations!

Everyone here at the BSI would like to congratulate Nigel on his achievement in winning the 2020 Immunology Teaching Excellence Award.


Runners-up

The calibre of nominees this year was exceptionally high and the BSI would also like to give a commendation to Dr Kathleen Nolan from the University of Manchester and Dr Audrey Teh from St. George's University of London. We would also like to thank the other nominees, all of whom demonstrated commitment, innovation and creativity in their teaching. Finally, thanks also go to our judges for their time and expertise in reviewing all the nominations. They had a tough task choosing just one winner due to the high calibre of all the nominees.

Dr Kathleen Nolan
Dr Kathleen Nolan is Senior Lecturer in Immunology and Programme Director of the BSc and MSci Immunology at the School of Biological Sciences at the University Manchester. 
Dr Audrey Teh

Dr Audrey Teh is Lecturer in Molecular Immunology at the Institute for Infection and Immunity at St. George's, University of London. 

New immunology educators’ profiles

Dr Nigel Francis will now form part of our database of immunology educators. We have developed this resource as part of our remit to support and develop immunology to allow BSI members to search for and contact other educators in the field. Please consider becoming part of this immunology family. Find out more at: www.immunology.org/immunology-educators


Past winners

We’d like to congratulate our previous winners once more: Dr Joanne Pennock from The University of Manchester, winner of the 2019 award; Dr Jenna Macciochi from the University of Sussex, winner of the 2018 award; and Dr Andrew Foey from University of Plymouth, winner of the 2017 award.


Interview by Eolan Healy
BSI Education & Careers Officer