Volume 43 | Number 2 | Spring 2013

Why I Teach

Spring 2013 Issue

Sonja Nehr-Kanet

Clinical Associate Professor, Medical Laboratory Science
Kasiska School of Health Professions, Division of Health Sciences

Nehr-Kanet is based at the ISU-Meridian Health Science Center. She joined ISU in 2002 as an assistant clinical professor before her promotion to associate clinical professor of medical laboratory science in 2007. From July 2008 to January 2012, she served as program director.

Before joining ISU, Nehr-Kanet was a technical consultant and senior technical trainer at Seattle's Puget Sound Blood Center, one of North America's top centers for transfusion medicine. She holds a master's degree in reproductive technology and a bachelor's degree in medical laboratory science from University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and a bachelor's degree in biology from Northern Michigan University, Marquette.

What is a medical laboratory scientist?

Medical laboratory scientists are the "medical detectives" of health care. They are responsible for testing and analyzing body fluids and tissues to aid in diagnosing and treating disease and illness. Seventy percent of all medical decisions are based on information provided by medical lab scientists.

What inspired you to be a university professor?

I've been influenced by great mentors throughout my life, including a professor who inspired me and believed in me when I did not have the courage to do that myself. I felt it was my turn and my duty to give back. I was thrilled at the opportunity to work at ISU. It's been a dream job, enabling me to stretch my teaching and knowledge to the highest level within my profession.

Why teach in a university setting?

When I first graduated from college, I told myself I would never be a teacher. Then I interned for a year in a hospital laboratory where I had both horrible and terrific clinical preceptors. I learned valuable lessons from both.

While completing my medical lab science certification in Canada, the lab manager and staff at my local hospital took me in. They offered me a part-time job which led to full-time work. I succeeded through their patience and kindness.

When it came time to mentor other young workers, I realized I had a talent for teaching. I returned to school to obtain my master's degree to become qualified to teach in an academic environment.

At ISU, I've had the pleasure of working with curious and talented students with diverse backgrounds. I also love the interaction with other health care professionals. We are able to learn and benefit from each other.

If you weren't a university professor what do you think you would be doing?

I'd probably be doing clinical and applied research with platelets and other blood products.

What has teaching taught you about yourself?

Patience. As a teacher, I want my students to love medical laboratory science as much as I do, but it doesn't happen instantly. I am here to educate, mentor and guide them during their journey. I am thrilled when I go to clinic sites and see former students who are now lab managers or serving as preceptors for new students.

What is the most difficult aspect of teaching?

The most difficult aspect is the lack of resources to do what I want to do. Adding more faculty members would allow me to do more research and keep on top of advances in the discipline.

Is there an identifying moment where you knew you had a pronounced positive impact upon a student?

It takes about six months for that "ah ha" moment to happen, when a light bulb goes off in a student's head and he or she thinks, "Hey, this is fun. I can do it."

I recall one student in particular. She came to the United States from Russia as a new bride. It was a pleasure to watch her achieve her American Dream. She graduated with top honors, passed her certification exams, became a new mother and landed a full-time job at St. Alphonsus Medical Center. Now she's studying to become a medical doctor.

What career/life messages do you try to impart upon your students?

I try to get them to aim for excellence and love what they do.

Susan Swetnam, Ph.D.

Professor of English
College of Arts and Letters

What inspired you to be a university professor?

As a new college student at the University of Delaware in 1968, I realized that I'd come home to a setting where I could begin to grow into a new person, to explore potential I hadn't known I possessed. I'd never met anybody like my professors. They loved ideas in a way nobody I'd ever known did; their breadth and depth of intellectual curiosity took my breath away. They modeled for me what it could be like to live the life of the mind, pushing yourself hard, asking difficult questions and losing track of time as you explored them with others and wrote about them.

Why teach in a university setting?

Students tend to come to universities—whether as traditional or non-traditional students—at key thresholds of their lives. They're not in school because they have to be, marking time; they've made a voluntary decision to take risks, try something new and grow. They also have more life experience than students at earlier levels and so have better contexts to help them explore and make shapes with new ideas. Universities traditionally encourage questioning of received truths and past authorities more enthusiastically than high schools. I believe that mindset is crucial for real learning.

If you weren't a university professor what do you think you would be doing?

I'd be a full-time writer. Next year, after I retire, I'm going to do that—sort of. I'm also taking classes in the massage therapy program at ISU, and during my first year of retirement I'll do the full-time year and be certified by the end of summer 2014. I want to be a volunteer massage therapist, specializing in infant, premi and hospice massage.

What has teaching taught you about yourself?

Many things. These might be summed up in a story about singing. When I was an undergrad, I sang in the select choir at Delaware and took serious voice lessons. But I was so young and insecure that I could never sing solos. In the years that followed, I sang only in private—mostly with my Girl Scouts and my late husband (who loved late-night bluegrass). After he died of cancer a decade ago, I got finessed into starting to sing at mass and soon people were asking me to lead the musical part of my church service. I was pretty darned scared but I soon realized that my youthful inability to sing alone in public was history. Thanks to teaching, I was no longer afraid of the sound of my own voice. That's a perfect metaphor for all those other things I've gained over 40 years in the classroom.

What is the most difficult aspect of teaching?

Finding the time to do it right! Real teaching requires staying current, which requires reading, and lots and lots of planning—I can never understand teachers who do the same thing every semester or who simply read the material to students out of the textbook.

Is there an identifying moment where you knew you had a pronounced positive impact upon a student?

There have been many. One recent example: one of my former MA students—now a Ph.D. student and faculty member at College of Southern Idaho—has been invited to deliver papers based on her thesis at national and international conferences—an MA thesis. Her work has been so well received that she's been elected grad student representative to the board of directors of the regional chapter of the Modern Language Association, and she was chosen to be a session chair at the upcoming annual meeting in October. In that latter capacity she solicited—and bless her, accepted—a paper proposal from an expert in the field she just happened to know... me!

What career/life messages do you try to impart upon your students?

Wide-ranging intellectual curiosity is one of the most exciting, enabling things in life. If you don't cultivate it in yourself, your time on earth is going to be immeasurably poorer. You'll only know how good you are, what your potential is, if you push yourself and allow your teachers to push you. "This is too hard" is the worst comment a student can make. Reading and writing and teaching are hard work, but they're also among the greatest delights on earth.

What do you want students to take from their isu experience?

As the above suggests, not just narrow vocational knowledge but also experiences in class that have piqued their interest in unrelated fields they might not have known existed, fields they can explore in the years to come.