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Deborah Vaughan: Teacher, Mentor, Leader
Not much slows down Deborah Vaughan. The longtime BU School of Medicine (BUSM) professor of anatomy andneurobiology joyfullyputs in 12-to-14-hourdays teaching and advising current students as well as interviewing and selecting students for admission to the School. She also designed and maintained her department’s website for five years before a professional web editor took it over. A veteran of traditional teaching methods, Vaughan welcomes new technologies that advance teaching and learning and leads several School and University committees tasked with determining the best technology tools.
Vaughan has received every major teaching award at BUSM. Her great respect for students is the hallmark of her academic engagement: “I tell new faculty that the first thing you must have is respect for the students,” she says. “Respect for who they are, for their time, and respect for what they are asked to accomplish.”
While diverse learning styles is a relatively new phenomenon in education theory, Vaughan has been adjusting her teaching methods to accommodate students for a very long time. “I am very organized, and when I become too rigid in my teaching presentations to someone who is a random thinker, they can become frustrated,” she says. “I realized many years ago that to be successful with students I needed to try a variety of ways of communicating. Now I work to help other faculty members use the most appropriate methods and encourage them to hone their skills in this way.”
Mark Moss, PhD, a member of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology since 1982 and department chair for 15 years, has known Vaughan for a good portion of her academic career. “Dr. Vaughan is the consummate educator,” he says. “Her ability to make subject matter interesting and relevant and to convey information in an efficient and durable manner—coupled with her commitment to the discipline and professionalism—is unparalleled. Her prowess as an educator has been recognized by her colleagues and students with eight teaching awards, including the Stanley Robbins award, the most prestigious conferred by the School of Medicine.”
Vaughan never planned to teach or work in the field of human medicine. “As a child, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but women just didn’t go into that field then,” she recalls. “And frankly, I was from a family where women weren’t expected to aspire to a career.”
As a high school student in Concord, New Hampshire, she trained horses for dressage events and taught equitation. “Once I was asked if I aspired to be a teacher and I said no, but then I recalled that from about the ninth grade, I was teaching horses to perform very specific movements and people the skills to read and communicate nonverbally with the horses,” she says.
Vaughan attended the University of Vermont as an undergraduate in a medical tech program majoring in biology. “While it became apparent that I enjoyed science and research, I didn’t want to go into medicine because I am one of those people who feel uncomfortable around sick people and in hospitals,” she says.
She completed her PhD in biology at Boston University in 1971 and a post-doctoral fellowship in neuroanatomy with Alan Peters, then chair of the BUSM Department of Anatomy. In 1972, she joined an interdisciplinary program project on aging and the nervous system (headed by F. Marott Sinex, chair of the Department of Biochemistry from 1957 to 1977) focusing on neuroscience and connective tissue and the effects of advancing age.
“At that time, aging research was not very highly thought of,” says Vaughan. “Our work was one of the first to apply the rigor of quantitative science to this area, and the project, now focusing on anatomy and behavior, is in its fortieth year of research. We made significant contributions to early aging studies.” Vaughan eventually studied peripheral nerve regeneration under her own National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, focusing on how advancing age affects the ability of neurons to regenerate peripheral axons.
In 1996, Peters asked Vaughan to direct the histology courses for the anatomy and neurobiology department, which meant giving up her research to focus on teaching—and she’s been engaged by it ever since. “I love to see the student who gets excited by the beauty of medicine . . . who can go from viewing the vocabulary of black dots to nuclei and cytoplasm when they see something on their computer screen that clicks for them.” She cites the student who hands her a journal article that he or she now understands because of the vocabulary and concepts learned in Vaughan’s class and from her lectures, and the one who recently sent her a link to a website featuring dinner plates with histological designs on them that both agreed were beautiful.
Vaughan notes the changes in medical student demographics and medical education. “Twenty-five years ago, our students were mainly male Caucasian with a very intense premedical education that included comparative anatomy, embryology, and physiology,” she says. “With a homogeneous, pre-trained student population, faculty could be laboratory based and lecture on their research, which didn’t necessarily have much to do with the context of the course they were teaching.
“Now that we have recognized our population of physicians should be a more diverse group socioeconomically, by gender, academic background, race, and religion, we have to be more professional in our approach to teaching. We have to know about different learning styles, about the neurobiology of learning, and how the information we are teaching will be used clinically.” She also emphasizes the richness that comes from having a diverse student population and the effect it has on faculty, students, and—most importantly—the patients who will be cared for by these physicians.
Continually thinking of ways to improve her teaching, Vaughan revamped the process by which histology is taught at BUSM. “Back in the mid-90s, we decided to hold labs before lectures so that the students would know the vocabulary and would have invested some time in the material before coming to the lecture,” she says. “They would be familiar with the microscopic images, making them better prepared for the lecture and allowing class time to be spent talking about the clinical relevance of what they had been looking at and studying.”
Vaughan has been a leader in adopting innovative technology that advances teaching and learning. She notes that virtual microscopy, whereby digitized microscope slides can be manipulated as if in a microscope but are viewed on a computer, has revolutionized histology; any number of students can view slides independently from anyplace, enabling them to study together more easily. “With virtual microscopy, students can take a screenshot, email it to me, and then get their questions answered quickly,” she says. She also cites technologies like the audience response system that offers immediate feedback to faculty on how well students understand their lectures, and Blackboard, the learning management system where faculty can manage all of their course materials online and students can access them anytime. “So many of these technologies involve opportunities for self-study producing lifelong learners, which is what we want our students to be,” she says. She also pioneered the adoption of computer-based examinations for the pre-clerkship years of medical school.
At the same time, she is cautious about technology—students no longer have to attend class as all lectures are videotaped—and worries that they are losing some face-to-face communication skills by missing the facial expressions and body language so important to the practicing clinician: “They tend to interact in a virtual way, so my concern is that technology is allowing them to miss out on an important aspect of our complete education. We can’t force them to come to class, so my current push is to encourage our faculty members to make our lectures value added—give them spontaneity, make them interactive, and provide some clinical context that excites discussion.”
What she does must be working, as students rate her very highly. “This is an amazingly well-run course,” writes a student evaluating Vaughan’s class. “I never thought histology would be even remotely interesting, and somehow Dr. Vaughan made the topic not only interesting but relevant to our future practice.” Another writes, “Dr. Vaughan is amazing, and a very devoted and knowledgeable professor.”
She is also highly regarded by her colleagues. “Debbie Vaughan is an exceptional person, a wonderful colleague, and an outstanding educator,” says Jarrett Rushmore, PhD, assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology. “Her effectiveness as a professor comes in part because she is willing to work harder than anyone for her students. She is constantly adapting and improving her teaching, and she incorporates new thinking and technology to that end. I think what really makes her a first-rate professor is that she fundamentally believes that education is not simply about imparting knowledge, but lies more in challenging students (and colleagues) to be more than they are. She has high and clearly stated expectations of her students—she gives them the tools to achieve their goals and guides them with devotion and unflagging energy. Her students invariably find that over the course of the semester, they are able to achieve at levels they did not think previously possible, and they are better for having taken her course.”
Vaughan credits BUSM with supporting and promoting faculty dedicated to teaching. “This demonstrates a true commitment to the mission of medical education,” she says. “We have some faculty who are hired solely as educators and whose research focuses on medical education, and others, like me, who have been allowed to retire our research to teach full time.” She notes that almost every basic science department has full-time educators as their course directors: “We are available to serve on the committees, we mentor new teachers, keep up with technology, and give direction to this high quality product that is a BUSM education.”
When Vaughan is not teaching or mentoring, she is reviewing applications and interviewing potential students. A member of the Admissions Committee for 17 years and an assistant dean of admissions for 10, Vaughan is extremely familiar with the student body. “I know how exceptional our students are, and faculty need to understand the breadth of experience they have and how accomplished they are,” she says. “In all fairness, we also have to be explicit about our expectations and realize that understanding doesn’t come easily and immediately to everyone at the same pace.” She also worked for 10 years with the Admissions Office and IT to develop and implement an automated admissions information management system.
“Over the last decade, BUSM has taken a lead role, at the national level, in advancing a program of holistic review of all applicants, and Dr. Vaughan has been a key member of the leadership team,” says Robert Witzburg, MD, BUSM associate dean for admissions. “She is a role model, and we all have developed great respect for her integrity, her commitment, and her ability to find innovative solutions to complex problems.”
Vaughan is always in great demand. In addition to her many other activities, she serves on the BUSM Student Services and Medical Education Committees, is an advisor in the Academy of Advisors, and chairs the Pre-clerkship Curriculum Subcommittee. She has also served as thesis advisor in the Master of Medical Sciences Program for the Division of Graduate Medical Sciences, has been a PhD research committee member for 11 students, and serves on the MD-PhD Steering Committee and the Planning Committee for the Neuroscience of Education Program. Her all-University commitments include co-chairing the Teaching and Learning Technologies Governance Committee and membership in the University Committee on Student Life and Policies.
“I have known Debbie Vaughan for 17 years,” says Doug Hughes, MD, associate dean for academic affairs. “She is a luminary who has graciously mentored generations of both medical students and junior faculty. Debbie’s modesty is matched only by her brilliance.”
Vaughan says she has remained at BU for 40 years because she feels she is in sync with the philosophy of the institution: “I love the attitude of doing your best for others, the quality of the students, and my colleagues. This is one very satisfying job, and I thoroughly enjoy it.”
This story first appeared in Campus & Alumni News