Alumni Profiles Series: Alex Broussard
Dr. Alex Broussard graduated with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry under the mentorship of Dr. Michael Boyce at Duke. He earned his B.S. in Biochemistry and Genetics from Texas A&M University. During his graduate school career, he served as an adjunct professor of biology at Durham Tech Community College. Since graduation, he has worked as an IB Biology & introductory chemistry teacher at Stuart Hall High School in San Francisco. He continues to teach science to high school students at Green Level High School in Wake County, North Carolina.
What inspired you to pursue a career in education?
When I started graduate school, I knew I wanted to do some combination of teaching and research. There were a couple of different people who influenced me to want to teach. My mother is an English teacher, and I grew up in an environment where teaching and education were highly valued. I had a chemistry teacher in high school who was just an unbelievable educator and who I think in a lot of ways equipped me to achieve all that I have. When I began grad school, my understanding of teaching as a career was limited to the kind of teaching I saw around me—i.e., you teach some classes on the side while running a lab. So, I thought I would do that!
To prepare for teaching, I enrolled in the Certificate in College Teaching program at Duke. I tried to teach as much as I could and, eventually, I got an adjunct professorship at Durham Tech Community College. And it was around the time I was working at Durham Tech that I realized I had a little bit more fun teaching classes than I did at the bench running experiments. And the scales slowly tipped until around the time I was in my fifth or sixth year, when I wondered if there was a way I could just teach full time. Was that a career option for me? And so, it wasn't that I started my career thinking that I wanted to teach high school, but I got to a point where all I wanted to do was teach full time. And the age group was honestly kind of a surprise.
Could you talk about your teaching philosophy?
I think one of the cornerstones of my teaching is that I should be doing the smallest possible amount of what you might call traditional lecturing. If it's a 70-minute class, I'm going to try to do 20 minutes max and, the rest of the time, learning should be in the students’ hands. For those 20 minutes of lecturing, I have a concrete plan of action—the ideas I need to get across and the methods to get them across. Having said that, I should add that I always leave room for on-the-spot improvisation based on the real-time feedback I get from the specific group of students I am working with on that day.
Let me elaborate using an example. Let’s say, we have to look at a reaction state diagram and I have to explain how to interpret it. I plan that I'm going to use the metaphor of dominoes and then I'm going to translate the metaphor to mathematical equations. And then what I'm going to see who has questions. Somebody always does. The examples that I came up with always don't make sense to somebody. And then it's a challenge of figuring out a metaphor for, let’s say Matt, to whom the dominoes metaphor did not make intuitive sense. So let's see what Matt understands. Let's see what he doesn’t. Let's try to improvise something that will help him. I have learned that you're always going to get students who misunderstand, don't know, or have really strange misconceptions or ideas about the concept that need to be unlearned and you cannot predict that.
Over the course of my class, my students should not just learn the material, which is at the bottom of my pyramid. It's the base, and the bare minimum. What we want to do is climb to the top. I want to get them to think about science as a process that is based on experimentation and analysis of data in order to arrive closer to a model of our physical reality. The way I pitch content is always grounded there. I explain concepts and then I challenge my students with data and, based on their understanding of the concepts, ask them to come up with a model that explains the data. I walk around the room, guiding and steering them towards the finish line, but they have to get there themselves. I think that that's a much more productive way to change the way they think about the concepts, and we also experience learning together as a scientific community.
How have you found the transition from teaching at a community college to teaching high school students?
The one thing about teaching at a community college like Durham Tech is that I was working with undergrads, but my students were incredibly diverse in many ways. I had students who were older than me, and I had 17-year-old high school students who were taking a dual-enrollment class. I had the whole gamut. The biggest difference, in my opinion, between the younger and older students is the lived experience. I think we tend to just implicitly assume that all students in the class already know how to do certain basic things. Working with students from a wide spectrum of age groups, I have learned that that is not true. There have been many days when I have walked in to teach something and then realized about 15 minutes into the lesson that this concept or technique or strategy that I don't consciously think about anymore is not intuitive to a high school student. So, when I'm trying to jump right into chemical equilibrium and the idea of dealing with rates mathematically in my chemistry class, my younger students are asking, “Can you explain that for me, please?” I realized I needed to account for the fact that…I don't know what classes they’ve taken.
How did the Certificate in College Teaching program prepare you for your current career path?
The courses I took as part of the CCT program taught me how to listen and how to write a teaching philosophy. The program gave me the tools to build a learning- and student-focused class, which has become fundamental to me. My first year teaching at Durham Tech, I did not just teach a class. I learned immensely from the mistakes I made teaching that class. I wouldn't say I know everything about how people learn, but I know enough and most of what I know comes from the teaching experience at Durham Tech and the CCT courses. I felt very supported, and everything I needed was supplied in one way or another.
Another resource that was super helpful to me was Duke Learning Innovation. They will help you with all aspects of your teaching as well as guest lecturing for a module of another course. They are experts in teaching and pedagogy. If you're teaching a class and you're taking a more active role, you should go talk to them; they are personal teaching consultants, and they're fantastic. Andrea Novicki is their STEM person and she is honestly the best!
What has your career path looked like since you graduated?
When I graduated, I knew I wanted to teach full-time. I started thinking about places that would allow me to do that. I knew about small colleges and community colleges, but teaching at a private high school was a possibility that didn't really occur to me. I was given this idea by Mike Boyce, my thesis advisor, and Gretel Guest, my mentor at Durham Tech, who told me that for private high schools, you don't need a teaching certification. I was moving to San Francisco because of my partner’s postdoc, so I applied to teach at colleges and private high schools in the area. What ended up sounding like the best fit from the perspective of the institutions, their goals, their philosophy, and what they wanted to accomplish with their students was one of those private high schools. I knew that I could teach that age group because of my experience at Durham Tech. I really enjoyed teaching at Stuart Hall High School; it was a great place to learn how to teach, and I had fantastic students. Now I'm moving to a public school: I recently moved back to Durham and I'm going to be working at a Wake County public school. The big career development now is moving from public to private. There are some challenges there. There are some opportunities there. And I am excited about my teaching certificate training!
Do you have any interesting projects in the works?
With my high school students, I am working with a PI at a liberal arts college in a program called yEvo. My students perform directed evolution experiments on yeast and he follows up with whole-genome sequencing on clones that, for example, evolved resistance to a specific drug. I met my collaborator at a virtual conference last year and I was very excited to learn how to teach my students how to perform basic microbiology experiments. But because of the pandemic, my students could not do the full project. We could only do some pilots where my students generated the clones. I wanted them to experience looking at the results of whole-genome sequencing and do some genetic analyses. We will be doing that this year and I am very excited!
What was the best career advice you received in grad school?
Some of the best career advice I got was from Mike, my Ph.D. mentor. I think he does an exceptional job with supporting his grad students in whatever they want to do. His students have gone into secondary teaching, consulting, traditional biotechnology jobs, and postdocs. I’ll paraphrase the advice he gave me: “You need to make this training experience your own. You need to think about what you want to get out of this. And there are resources in place. There are people who will help, but rarely will you get referred to those places. You need to figure out exactly what you want. You need to decide what resources you need. And then you need to figure out how to get the support and resources you need. It has to be active and you have to do it for yourself.”
What is one of your favorite memories of Duke?
I loved the Boyce lab’s environment. When I was in the lab, it was a dynamic and fun place to work. I think everybody took their science very seriously. And the people I worked with were incredible scientists who got a lot done, but they were also super friendly and approachable and helpful and goofy and ridiculous in a way that made it a little bit easier to go to work every day! For instance, if there was a Western blot I was running for the tenth time and then somebody tells a ridiculous joke, that kind of eased the tension. Maybe now I had it in me to run the Western for an eleventh time, if need be! The almost familial kind of group that we had in Mike's lab at the time was something that I really treasured.
Ph.D. candidate, Biochemistry
Akanksha Manghrani is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Al-Hashimi laboratory in the Department of Biochemistry. Her current research focuses on using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance and chemical probing methods to study DNA and RNA dynamics. She is passionate about developing in vitro models of the dynamics of nucleic acids and harnessing them to predict the dynamics of these biomolecules in living cells. She has mentored two graduate students for their first-year rotation projects at the Al-Hashimi laboratory and serves as a peer mentor to the current first-year biomedical graduate students under the guidance OBGE’s 2021 peer mentor initiative.