By Morgan Guthrie and Reese Green
Fresh out of UVM’s own Neuroscience PhD program, Dr. Patrick Mullen quickly transitioned from student to teacher. If you’re a neuroscience student at UVM, you may have taken a class with Dr. Mullen during his first semester this fall as a professor; a member of the biology department, Dr. Mullen teaches several courses including Exploring Neuroscience, Diseases of the Nervous System, and Advanced Neurobiology. His recent graduation and transition to a teaching role provides a unique opportunity for Dr. Mullen to reflect on his experiences as a student as he dives into his current role helping students develop their own passion for science in the classroom.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from Saint Lawrence University in Canton, New York, Dr. Mullen joined a lab at Boston University. His position as a research assistant investigating Alzheimer’s disease led him to apply and enroll in the neuroscience PhD program at UVM; during his PhD, he worked with Alicia Ebert of the neuroscience department and Chris Franklin of the biochemistry department studying the mechanisms by which mutations in a specific gene family can lead to neurological diseases.
Reflecting on his experience, Dr. Mullen commented: “I got a lot of opportunities to teach… that was one thing that was really great about the neuroscience program here.” At the start of his PhD, Dr. Mullen did not expect to go down the teaching path immediately: “when I started grad school, I didn’t go into it thinking oh, maybe this will lead to a teaching career. I thought I'm going to solve a disease!…[but] through my teaching experience as a TA, I just caught the bug. I would always want to teach if I could… I couldn’t say no because I liked it so much.” During his PhD, Dr. Mullen trained undergraduates in the lab at UVM and was also a teaching assistant for medical neuroscience at the Larner School of Medicine: “my teaching duties would be to just show up in the brain anatomy lab…for a neuroscience geek like me this is the best.”
Dr. Mullen’s experience and enthusiasm for teaching is evident not only through such reflections but also through his active role as a lecturer: “If I’m not teaching, I will not feel fulfilled...I hope to incorporate research as a tool to teach.” When asked if pursuing a PhD was always on his radar throughout his undergrad years, Dr. Mullen replied that “I always wanted to go to med school, then I worked in a hospital, and it was way too intense. I would rather be here and talking to students…I would much rather teach someone to do something and see them get excited.” Recalling his excitement about science during his undergraduate years, Dr. Mullen comments: “I remember when I was in college and how exciting it was to waltz down the sidewalk going like, I'm gonna learn about developmental neuroscience! That was one of the best experiences in my life and it's inspiring to think I'm part of that for someone else perhaps.”
Beginning a teaching career straight out of graduate school seems like a difficult challenge in the best of times, but the current climate of the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the stakes for old and new professors alike. Dr. Mullen expressed how “I didn’t anticipate some of the challenges. You think you can just show up in a classroom and be confident in the material and everything is going to be great but…COVID presented unexpected challenges. A lot of students are struggling…I need to support them in that aspect.” Dr. Mullen’s advice to current students involved staying positive and spending the time to reflect about what kind of learning works best for them. He reminds us that as the semester begins to feel endless and tiring and “when you’re having one of those crappy days and you’re struggling, you need to remember: this is my dream, I just have to struggle through it.” He also recommends students “be intentional about how you study…learning how to study is the biggest challenge. When I think back on my experience, I was not a very good student [because] I didn't know what I needed.” Having a good attitude and being realistic is key, especially when it comes to figuring out your career. Before he began his PhD, Dr. Mullen described how “when I was at BU doing research, I also worked at Trader Joe’s for a year…I feel like I learned a lot about dealing with people, interacting with people, keeping a positive attitude when things aren’t going so well.” Dr. Mullen finished by saying, “think about how much time in your life you’ll be pursuing whatever it is that you want…Make sure it’s really what you want, and go out and try it, get your feet wet before you dive in.”