Educator. Clinician. Researcher. Department Chair. Dr. Nicholas Frank has worn many hats during his six years at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. In June, 2017, he will step into a new role as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. Recently, he sat with us, to discuss everything from his childhood in England, to his vision for Cummings School in the future. The article below is an abbreviated version of the original interview.
Before you got to where you are today, you were a vet student, can you reflect on your life then and compare it to your life now?
As a vet student, I was one of those students who was interested in knowing what I needed to know in order to become a practitioner. When I reflect on my career, I think about how I’ve gone along a path of advanced training in medicine, a PhD, and building a research program, and all the many academic pursuits that I’ve engaged in. It is a true illustration of how a veterinary career can unfold over time. You don’t know at each step which way it’s going to go, and that’s the truly wonderful thing about our profession, that there is this opportunity to take your career in multiple different directions.
After completing your veterinary education and establishing your career at the University of Tennessee, you had the opportunity to go back to the UK and help develop a new veterinary school. Please share that experience.
For me, it was an extraordinarily stimulating time of my career. I always advise people to avoid becoming complacent in what they’re doing and try to challenge themselves. That [experience] was certainly a big challenge for me, because, I was put in a different teaching environment in a different curriculum and was asked to teach in a way that was different from the way I was teaching before…
I think it also put me in a group of people who were very forward thinking as far as their teaching. That’s what Nottingham was able to do, they attracted people who were ready for a challenge. They attracted people who were not comfortable, not satisfied with the traditional ways of teaching and so it was, and is, an environment where people can experiment and try new approaches to teaching…it’s a progressive teaching environment and that’s what I’m hoping encourage here at Cummings School.
Progressive as far as it encouraged people to think outside the box and challenge the status quo? Is there a more defined way of thinking about ‘progressive learning’?
A lot of the emphasis for veterinary medical education is on experiential learning. The more that we can encourage students to take that knowledge, manipulate it, and reflect on the use of it, the better prepared they will be for the challenges of the veterinary profession…
A progressive curriculum is one that is willing to change, and we must be willing to find ways that we can further improve on what we’re doing. We must recognize that our discipline is changing and there’s progression over time.
What do you think are the biggest challenges that students currently face?
I think for all students, the challenge is really to be able to go through the curriculum, get the information that they need, acquire the skills that they need, and to do it in a way that’s balanced and enjoyable for them so that they really get the rich experience of being in vet school…
How do you think we can continue to support mental health and wellbeing?
It must be a multi-pronged approach. I think we’ve made some really good improvements over the past few years that Dr. Angie Warner has spearheaded along with Dean Kochevar. [These include] Cummings Support Center, mental health counselors, discussions, and encouraging openness to mental health.
One area that perhaps overlaps with my interests in teaching and curriculum development is the impact of our teaching on mental health… An area that I have begun work on and hope to continue is this concept of what we consider to be foundational knowledge and what we consider to be specialty knowledge.
All students need to acquire foundational knowledge because we consider this essential for them to enter the profession. How much specialty knowledge perhaps depends on the student’s own interests and abilities. If a student is already exerting maximum effort to acquire foundational knowledge, then there isn’t a need to try to push that student through the specialty knowledge when the foundational knowledge by definition is what they need to enter the profession. By the same token, we should leave the specialty knowledge there as an opportunity for any student to take advantage of…
Perhaps that will help with wellbeing, as part of the multi-pronged approach. I wouldn’t do that in isolation without doing the other parts. But, I do think that’s a part that we could work on to help our students on the mental health side.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges for faculty?
The biggest challenges for faculty, I think, are to have enough time to explore and expand what they want to do in their teaching and their scholarly work, when the demands on their time seem to increase every year…
In each area I could identify pressures on faculty. If we look at research, research funding is increasingly hard to find…If you look at the pressures with respect to teaching, as we increase class size it becomes harder to give that individual student the time that he or she needs. So, at a time when our students might need us more, we have more pressures to be able to devote that time. I think that’s something that we need to be aware of.
Have you identified ways to promote scholarship in teaching and education that aren’t as time demanding?
I think that we need to make teaching more of our conversation, it needs to be more prominent in our discussions. I hope that as a department chair I’ve tried to encourage individuals to explore new teaching methods and conduct studies that will give us evidence-based approaches to making decisions about teaching that I think we badly need. I feel that we as clinicians absolutely practice evidence-based medicine. As educators, I’m not sure if we practice evidence-based pedagogy. I’m not sure if that’s as prominent in our school culture as I would hope it would be in the future.
During your recent campus talk, you spoke about helping students to develop ‘illness scripts’ and that comes through experience, time, and knowledge. Is that the same for the faculty developing ‘education scripts’. How do you go from being a scientist to forming those education scripts?
Absolutely. One of the initiatives that I would like to launch is a two-year teacher training program for all new faculty, and any faculty member who wants to do this…
We can do more to try to help those individuals to improve their teaching and to do it in a more deliberate and organized fashion by having a teaching program, perhaps a teaching certificate that then also can be put into promotion documents. It can be said that this person committed effort for two years to improve as an educator, and that’s rewarded in the promotions process. Also, I hope it will be inherently rewarding for that individual because they will feel that they are well trained to be an educator as well as to be a clinician or a scientist in the lab, or whatever part of the vet school that they work in.
As newly appointed Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, where would you like to see the school in ten years?
I would love the school to be talked about at a national, and international level for the progressive teaching that we do and for the environment that we create for our students. And, to have our graduates look back on their vet school days and think positively about the investment that we made in them and who they became as they went through their four years of vet school.
I think we do a tremendous job as it is, we are such a strong veterinary school, but I think that we need to keep moving forward. Education doesn’t stand still, just as it doesn’t stand still in clinical medicine. We want to be up in the forefront just as we are in our medicine and our research, I would like us to be that way in our teaching. I think we have everything we need here: we have the excellent students and dedicated educators that we need, I would just like to have more dialogue at a school level with the faculty about what we want to be, and how we’re going to get there on the teaching side.