Susie Whiten, winner of the 'Higher' Science Teacher of the Year prize awarded by The THES and the Royal Institution, talks to Alison Utley about her work as an anatomist.
What makes a teacher exceptional? "For one thing, they probably need to be a bit eccentric," says Susie Whiten, recalling her own student days at Oxford. "They need to be able to embrace the best from new technologies without losing sight of traditional values."
As an anatomist, Dr Whiten of St Andrews University school of biological and medical sciences is well aware of the benefits of 3D modelling and other techniques designed to help students understand the human body.
However sophisticated, such machines can never replace real life. "There is nothing really like holding a human heart in your hand, putting your fingers in its holes and feeling it," she says.
Dr Whiten has always strived to make the student experience real and one of her secrets is storytelling. Sometimes it might be an episode from ER or Star Trek, other times it will be closer to home. "I tell them about little incidents that have happened," she says. "Like the time my husband was playing with our daughter when she was very small. He was dangling her on his foot, holding her by the hand and he dislocated her elbow. There's a lesson in that."
Sadly, she says, many lecturers fail to come across as human.
Dr Whiten uses humour to enliven lectures. "If you can make them laugh, you are already halfway there, particularly if you are covering a dry topic. Anatomy doesn't have to be a dead subject. The key is to make it living and relevant to students."
Her goal is to create a supportive teaching environment. Dr Whiten recalls with horror as an undergraduate attending a lecture given by an eminent male scientist. "He didn't really like women and when he saw me chatting for a moment he stopped and glared at me for much longer than was necessary to make the point."
The unpleasantness of the experience has not left her and has to some extent shaped her determination to do better.
Dr Whiten realised she wanted to become a scientist while an undergraduate and became fascinated by the application of science to practical everyday problems, in particular the world population crisis. Hence her move into reproductive physiology.
"Sex is such a great subject to teach," she says. "A friend of mine teaches statistics and often tells me how unfair it is. After all, if you can't be successful as a teacher in sex and anatomy, it is a pretty poor show."
The power of the image is something that has long held a fascination for Dr Whiten who paints and does life classes when she has time in between teaching. She has worked on the creation of 3D models using human embryos, gathered in the 1940s and 1950s before the issue was as sensitive as it is today.
"This has been extraordinarily powerful in putting over complicated information," she says. "Because as soon as your eye sees something, the brain starts processing the image. After all, the human visual system is very ancient and has an important survival value too. It is part of our evolutionary heritage."
But however powerful the image, it cannot replace the interested teacher. "You have to have interaction between student and teacher," she says.
"That relationship is subtle and complex. A machine can never answer a question in the way a teacher can. The answer I give depends on the questioner. A machine cannot make those kind of distinctions."
For many students, Dr Whiten is better known as Aunty Susie, a reflection of the warm relationship she establishes with her students. "I think students sense that I care about them. They see me as a person who cares about their academic progress and about their development as people. I mind when they are sad."
It is a privilege, she says, to be in such close contact with her students, whom she describes as bright, motivated, idealistic and full of life. "They add to my energy, there's no doubt about that," she says. "No doubt at all."
In evidence to the judges, one referee said: "Susie did her PhD in endocrine physiology, but much of her teaching is in anatomy for medical students, a traditionally dry and factual area but one that she makes relevant to clinical practice and teaches with outstanding clarity, enthusiasm and humour.
"Her exceptional student ratings speak for themselves as far as the popularity of her teaching is concerned. She is also one of those academics whose door is always open for students and to whom many of those in large classes she teaches turn for help and support. In turn she is held in genuine affection by them and continually visited, often years later, by former students."
As another referee put it: "Dr Whiten is a linchpin of our medical teaching programme. She is a woman of many talents, but it is worth saying that the most unusual of these is probably her ability to achieve the very best ratings from her students while teaching subjects that are traditionally seen as among the most difficult to make exciting, enlivening and up to date."