Spotlight on Faculty: Elizabeth Whitney, Ph.D., M.S.P.T.
What brought you to Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM)?
I came to BUSM in 1998 as a doctoral student in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. Prior to this, I spent ten years at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) working as a physical therapist and five years teaching in the Physical Therapy Program at Simmons College where I received my Bachelor’s degree. Additionally, I participated in clinical research in the Physical Therapy Department at MGH as part of my Master of Science degree program. As high school student I took a course call “Medical Biology;” it sparked my interest in human anatomy and physiology. I also wanted a career path that allowed me to work with others. Pursing a degree in physical therapy allowed me to study subject areas that interested me and was a career that allowed me to work with people.
Although I enjoyed my work and the clinical research I participated in, I craved being involved in basic science research and wanted to expand my role in an academic setting. As I researched Ph.D. programs, the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at BUSM stood out; it strongly matched my interests. I was particularly interested in the research on neuronal response to axonal injury and the effects of advancing age on this process. I was also excited by the course offering and felt right at home with the Department’s teaching mission.
After completing my Ph.D. in 2005, I was offered a faculty position. It was an easy decision to stay. A major component of this new role included assuming responsibility for teaching the DMD-I students at the Goldman School of Dental Medicine. Teaching professional students was something I had previously enjoyed at Simmons College; taking on this role was a great fit. The students are motivated and engaged in their education; they are a great group to work with.
What is your role within your department?
Most of my time is spent in formal teaching activities and working with students. I am fortunate to work with the DMD-I students at Goldman School of Dental Medicine during their entire first academic year. During the fall semester, I serve as the Course Director for Anatomical Sciences-I, a course that covers the topics of Histology and Neuroanatomy. During the spring semester, I work with these same students in Anatomical Sciences-II, a course that covers the topics of Embryology and Gross Anatomy.
At the Medical School, I teach in the Medical Gross Anatomy course. I give several lectures and assist students in the laboratory during the Back & Limb and Head & Neck sections of the course. This year I also stepped-in and served as the Graduate Director of the M.A. Vesalius Program. In this role, I assumed a number of responsibilities including advising and mentoring students, curriculum review, student issues, and admissions. In the Department, I also serve as a member of the Graduate Education Committee
Are you involved in any research at the moment?
I was initially interested in axonal injury and regeneration and the effect age has on the neuronal response, but I ended-up taking a very different research path. My research efforts have predominantly focused on the study of the neuropathology in autism and its relationship to the developmental timing of this disorder. Along with prior research documenting the timing and sequence of key developmental events such as neuronal proliferation, migration and synapse formation, our data has been useful in gaining insight into the timing of the pathology in the autistic brain. In recent years, however, teaching and advising responsibilities have filled my days. I have, however, begun work on two anatomically based research projects. Both of these projects integrate nicely with my interests and content that I am currently teaching.
What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of this job is spending time with and getting to know students. I teach about 300 students per year and, although I do not get to know each one, I really enjoy working one-on-one with students in the laboratory and during office hours. It is a bit cliché, but it is exciting to see a student finally “get it.” It doesn’t get old seeing students achieve and understand something that was once confusing and difficult to comprehend. I also love that every year brings a new group of students excited to be here and eager to learn. The students at BU are extremely hard working and dedicated to their studies; I think that is what any instructor hopes for.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Time! To balance teaching, advising, research and committee work is a challenge. It is great that there are so many opportunities to use different skill sets, but like many of my colleagues, I sometime have too much on my plate. On the positive side, however, I appreciate the flexibility of my work. I have the ability to prioritize and manage my time to meet the demands of my career and family life.
How do you like to spend your time outside of BUSM?
I love spending time with my family. My husband and I have nine- and eleven-year-old boys who both love sports. Thus, much of each weekend is spent on various sport fields: soccer, lacrosse and baseball. As a family we enjoy skiing, hiking and camping. When I have time to myself, I like to sneak out for a run.
Do you have any advice for current students or prospective students?
Enjoy the experience! I came back to school after several years of being in the work force and I brought with me new appreciation for learning. After spending years focusing on patient care and teaching, I was grateful for my “student status.” It afforded me time – lots of time – to read, study, explore new material, and challenge myself to think in a new way. There are many opportunities at BU, both academic and community involvement. Use your time as a student to explore, and then dive-in! Take advantage of opportunities for collaborative relationships with faculty on research efforts, teaching experiences and community efforts. Students will get out of their experience what they put into it.