Onion root mitosis, fetal pigs, and me

March 21, 2003

Many doctors tell us that if they couldn't be physicians, they'd like to teach biology. Here's one FP who actually tried it.


Onion root mitosis, fetal pigs, and me

Many doctors tell us that if they couldn't be physicians, they'd like to teach biology. Here's one FP who actually tried it.

By Timothy K. Huebner, MD
Family Physician/Wisconsin Rapids, WI

I've always been interested in teaching and, for years, I fantasized about applying for a faculty position at my old residency program. Well, I finally got into the classroom, but my students weren't family practice residents. They were teenagers at Assumption High School in my hometown.

In 1992, a patient who teaches at Assumption asked me if I could help the school's weak science department. Although the idea was intriguing, I didn't see how I could. Not only was I a full-time family physician, but my four children were then 10, 12, 14, and 15. My schedule just wouldn't allow it.

But the idea had been planted. So, the following year, when the school's advanced biology teacher started a six-week maternity leave, I agreed to fill in. My topic would be endocrinology.

I loved it. In fact, the experience proved so thoroughly enjoyable that when the teacher's contract wasn't renewed, I found myself in the principal's office telling him that I wanted to teach the entire course the following year. He said he'd been thinking the same thing. Thus began my career as a biology teacher.

I prepared hard that summer, putting in hours of reading to get ready for the upcoming school year. My first task was to examine the course textbook. It was copyrighted in 1978—it clearly had to go. With the principal's permission, I bought 20 new ones, which I located at a University of Wisconsin bookstore. Then I discovered that the microscopes I'd need for the class's first experiment—onion root mitosis—lacked a light source. Again, I petitioned the principal to purchase new microscopes for the class.

The start of the school year brought with it a grueling schedule: up at 5:30 a.m., hospital rounds at 6:30, teaching from 7:55 to 8:45, then to the clinic at 9:00 for a full day of seeing patients. After supper, I prepared for the next day's class.

But did I have fun! So did the students. We did a fetal pig dissection. I showed the class Frank Netter's human anatomy slides that I'd borrowed from the hospital collection, as well as slides of kidney, liver, bone, and skin provided by a pathologist friend. We looked at old X-rays from the clinic on a discarded view box, and a warm placenta from a consenting C-section patient. I think the highlight of the class were the trips we took to the hospital to view an ultrasound of a fetus in utero and a 2-D echocardiogram of one of the students.

Of course, it wasn't all fun. I didn't enjoy making up tests, correcting them, or giving grades. And there was no pay. But, overall, the benefits outweighed these negatives. My children all took the class, which allowed me an extra hour a day with them. I had the opportunity to read interesting articles in Science News and Scientific American, magazines I ordinarily wouldn't look at. And it was an honor to teach the many talented students, including two National Merit Scholarship finalists.

I've been especially gratified to read letters from graduates who told me that the class had helped them in college. One of my greatest rewards was teaching the son of the patient who'd originally approached me about the class. Tom developed an interest in medicine and is now in medical school.

Despite the rewards, after seven years, I decided to stop teaching. Each year, the 5:30 a.m. wake-up time seemed to come earlier and earlier. And I had to postpone or sacrifice too many of my own activities and attendance at my children's activities.

But I'm happy to report that one of my younger partners volunteered to take over for me in the classroom. I hope the experience will be just as memorable for him as it was for me.


Timothy Huebner. Onion root mitosis, fetal pigs, and me. Medical Economics 2003;6:68.