Science & Research

Research spotlight: Stein: brains, brews and big lecture halls

Science & Research Editor
Wednesday, October 15, 2014

This profile is part of a new series focused on Brown faculty and students engaged in science and research, with the purpose of highlighting and making more accessible the work being pursued at all levels across disciplines.

John Stein PhD’95 P’13, senior lecturer in neuroscience, said it was during graduate school that he first realized he “got a kick out of teaching.” Required to teach during multiple semesters, Stein said he quickly realized he enjoyed teaching just as much as he enjoyed the research he was conducting, which was unusual compared to his peers.

Having always been fascinated by biology, Stein said as a child he would spend hours reading  David Macaulay’s book series, “The Way Things Work,” and “flipping over rocks in my yard and looking for ants and grasshoppers and caterpillars.”

“It took me a while to realize that not everyone shared that interest the way I shared it,” he said, adding that his interest in science made people think his obvious career path would lead him to medical or dental school. It was not until his undergraduate years when he simultaneously took introductory courses in psychology and physiology that Stein realized he wanted to pursue the middle ground between the two fields: neuroscience.

Since receiving his Ph.D. from Brown in 1995, Stein has engaged in a range of teaching endeavors, and today, Stein’s main role at the University is as a lecturer. While Stein is well-known for teaching introductory courses such as NEUR 0010: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience” and BIOL 0200: “The Foundation of Living Systems,” he also teaches smaller seminars and a class that brings together Brown and RISD students with the purpose of creating science animations, VISA 1800T: “Communicating Science.”

With a “long-standing interest in outreach,” Stein has also spent time engaged in teaching high school students, immersing them in scientific exploration and experimentation through mobile labs with portable equipment. The mobile labs allow high school students to take part in predesigned experiments, Stein said. In one experiment, students analyze their own DNA. “It’s yourself … it’s real personalized,” he said.

At the end of each school year, the program holds a symposium at Brown where students present their work and listen to a keynote speaker and panels of graduate and undergraduate students. Though the project is running out of its initial funding and is on a “shoestring budget,” the program has continued with limited resources, Stein said, and is working around the funding issues.

Stein said he has learned that “presenting difficult concepts from different points of view” is crucial to effective teaching. Tailoring his teaching to the large range of learning styles and academic backgrounds at Brown is a challenge, Stein said, adding that testing knowledge well is even more diffcult. Stein said if professors want to test concepts effectively, it is essential they feel desperate to test not only “encyclopedic knowledge” but students’ abilities “to understand the process and the concepts so that if they go out and they want to learn more about it, they can pick up the facts and put them into a story on their own.”

In Stein’s office hangs a large quilt of student-designed t-shirts celebrating each semester of NEUR 0010. There’s an “energy” coming from the students, Stein said, and the t-shirt was a “natural result” of that. “Everyone’s quick to shoot down large courses. … We like to emphasize what’s right about large lecture courses,” Stein said. “You have a very diverse group of students, from very different backgrounds, who now outside of the classroom have something to talk about outside the dorm and the food — now they have a course.”

Stein pursues molecular biology outside of the classroom as well — through  brewing his own beer. But he said he usually doesn’t bring his beer to Brown because he prefers not to “put people on the spot” to say what they think. Saying to students, “Turn in your final, have some beer! That wouldn’t work too well,” he added, laughing.

Stein said he also enjoys outdoor activities and is involved with a local boyscout troop, though his own children are now too old to be scouts.