The best faculty member in any discipline at a major university integrates teaching and research into one seamless endeavor. These activities are at one level synergistic: teaching forces the faculty member to think beyond the narrow confines of the current grant or the current experimental result, while research maintains the desire for discovery that pervades the best teaching. However, when considered at a more fundamental level, they are in fact the same endeavor.
Excellence in teaching requires excellent instructors in the classroom, and a diverse curriculum that exposes students to many ideas and that challenges students to think from many different perspectives about a common set of problems. However, in the sciences, teaching also means educating people in the art of “doing science.” Doing science is not just standing at a bench doing lab work, or slogging through the woods doing fieldwork. These activities in fact comprise a very small fraction of how practicing scientists spend their time.
Doing science requires a tremendous number of skills, most of which cannot be taught in the classroom; they must be learned in an almost apprentice-like fashion. Doing science involves formulating hypotheses based on the previous results produced by yourself and others, designing critical experiments and observations to test those hypotheses, developing the needed skills and expertise to carry out those studies, persevering through the failures and questioning the seeming triumphs of actually collecting the data from studies, interpreting the results of those studies, and finally conveying the knowledge gained in spoken and written form to other researchers throughout the world – these are all part of the required curriculum in which students must be trained to do real science. Students can only glean so much from lectures and laboratory exercises associated with classes.
Moreover, except for collecting the data, most of these activities involve continuously interacting with other scientists. Scientists discuss recent papers and books to keep abreast of new developments. They discuss their ideas and hypotheses with others to expose flaws in reasoning. They present their results to others to identify alternative interpretations and new extensions. They argue about general theories and results to explore new ways to think. Comprehensive teaching involves guiding undergraduates and graduate students in their own discovery and exercise of these skills through daily interactions between faculty and students.
Similarly, excellence in research requires much more than simply having excellent research faculty. Obviously, creative, dynamic and interactive researchers are the bedrock on which the research endeavor must be based at a major university. However, the environment in which each researcher operates is just as critical to producing great science. State-of-the-art facilities are an absolute necessity in this environment. Just as critical though are having diverse and synergistic groups of researchers in many disciplines, the infrastructure to support the entire workforce, and a culture and climate that facilitates intellectual exchange.
This last ingredient to fostering the best scientific research, intellectual exchange, is probably the least appreciated and consequently the most ignored. However, the fuel of science – new hypotheses about how the world works – flows primarily from intellectual exchange. Intellectual exchange cannot be forced; it must be allowed to develop. These opportunities for development come in the myriad formal and informal venues in which people interact: classes, seminars, symposia, lectures; but also eating lunch, passing in the hall, chatting over a cup of coffee, contemplating the sunset. All of these contribute to doing the best science by fostering focused examination of well defined topics and sparking creativity to brainstorm new ideas and juxtapose old ideas in novel ways. Doing science is a singularly social endeavor.
Thus, the teaching and research endeavors of scientists at the best universities are essentially the same – engaging intellectually with others to reconcile observations of nature with theories about how nature works in an attempt to explore new ideas and new ways of thinking about the world. Students who go on to succeed in scientific professions are those who have a burning desire to do science. That desire is kindled by their educational exposure during their days first as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student. The environments best suited to accomplishing the goals of research and teaching are also the same – an environment that can spawn both focused examination and creative brainstorming.