She has teaching on the brain: The education of Dr. Kimberly Simpson
By Gary Pettus
Near her hometown of Warminster, Pa., at Grace United Presbyterian Church in Horsham, she learned from the man who was called there to preach.
Dr. Kimberly Simpson, right, and her father, the late Rev. Dr. Edward Simpson, celebrate together in 2003. The occasion was the completion of residency training by Dr. Robin Simpson, Kimberly Simpson’s sister.
She saw him guide people through grief and divorce, treating them with compassion and understanding, choosing words that were simple and gentle. He could explain things.
She learned from him the way few other people could, because he was her father.
And then she found the object of her calling – the seat of all those profound emotions her father had helped others sort out in his own.
She chose to reveal its secrets the way he might – clearly, considerately. She could explain things.
For her brainchild there are categories, like “Cervical Levels of the Spinal Cord.”
A classroom trivia contest with a focus that is single-minded, so to speak, it’s Dr. Kimberly Simpson
’s PowerPoint version of a popular TV quiz show.
Answer: This nerve innervates the ipsilateral sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles.
Question: What is the accessory nerve (CN XI)?
And that’s just for one point.
Dr. Kimberly Simpson, far left, reviews a model of the brain with a group of second-year medical students who have taken the medical neurobiology course. They are, from left, Sam Yelverton, Toi Spates and Eden Johnston.
Simpson, a neuroanatomist, researcher, associate professor of neurobiology and anatomical sciences at UMMC, adapted the game to explain a three-pound mystery (and its minions) known as the human brain.
This is her calling.
As part of that calling, teams of students may earn valuable prizes: Hershey’s Kisses and lollipops. Knowing the answers, or questions, also boosts them on the road to their M.D.s or Ph.Ds.
“The candy helps, of course,” Simpson said.
Neuro Jeopardy! is part of the lab review session of Simpson’s course in medical neurobiology, which is acclaimed by medical and graduate students.
“They rave about it,” said Dr. Michael Lehman, chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomical Sciences.
“What they are responding to is her enthusiasm and professionalism. Students can distinguish between professors who are just going through the motions and those who are truly committed to their learning and success.”
Some of the reviews:
- “I came in kind of intimidated and scared of the class, but it really changed the way I studied – for that class and even for others. Dr. Simpson diversified the experience for everybody. She’s been fantastic.” – Mike Smith, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience
- “In my career as a medical student, no one person has made a bigger impact in my educational pursuits than Dr. Simpson. She is a faculty member UMMC should fight to keep.” – Zach Pippin, third-year medical student
UMMC is on it. In May, Simpson received the Medical Center’s first-ever Regions Bank TEACH Prize, which includes a $10,000 stipend.
Supported by Regions Bank, the annual Toward Educational Advancement in Care and Health Prize honors a faculty member who persistently hones the practice of education like a carver with a block of wood that never stops growing.
“It’s coming up with new formats to engage their attention,” Simpson said. See: Neuro Jeopardy!
“The TEACH Prize really made me feel that what we’re doing matters,” she said. “That we’re making a difference.”
The desire to make a difference was as vital to her upbringing as the parietal lobe is to the reception of sensory information.
She and her two sisters learned it from their parents. One sister is a physician; the other is a first-grade teacher.
They learned to be generous.
“My father’s most precious resource was his time,” Simpson said, “and he gave it to us.
“My parents always put our needs ahead of theirs.”
In Horsham, Pa., her father, the Rev. Dr. Edward Simpson, also tended to the needs of his flock, while her mother Nancy worked as a secretary. Their home was in nearby Warminster, a small suburb of Philadelphia, Pa., with a four-star public golf course and a symphony orchestra.
Music and sports were, and are, big deals in Warminster. But young Kimberly Simpson was more interested in the intricate organ that enables people to enjoy them.
“It’s exploring life at the cellular level, seeing how the system works. It’s discovering how cellular events change behavior and how they relate to a disease,” Simpson said. “I find that gratifying.
“My father always believed he had a calling, and I believed I had a calling for this.
First, she was called to Pennsylvania’s Ursinus College. There, as a biology major in the early ’90s, she heard that she had arrived just in time for “the decade of the brain.”
It was like telling a marshmallow addict that it was the decade of S’mores.
Discoveries about our most complex organ were unfolding and being foretold.
“For me, that was great,” Simpson said. “There was, and continues to be, a lot of uncharted territory in the brain.”
She decided to explore it as a researcher, rather than as a physician. “I thought I could help more people,” she said.
Her reasoning: If science can find out exactly what makes a disease appear, science might also discover what makes it disappear.
But after Simpson began her graduate studies in neuroscience, she was confronted by a crisis that no amount of research could make go away.
Dr. Barry Waterhouse, one of her mentors, has a photo of her as a student enrolled at what is now the Drexel University College of Medicine. Simpson, a hardhat clamped on her head, is striding down a walkway; menacing fingers of electrical wires stretch from the ceiling.
The image symbolizes the financial uncertainties looming over students enrolled at the college’s predecessor.
“Our fate was hanging in the balance for up to a year. All the time, Kim is in the midst of her thesis research,” said Waterhouse, now professor of neurobiology and anatomy, and vice dean of biomedical graduate and postgraduate studies at Drexel.
“For a while, we thought the school was going to close.”
Like everyone else there, Simpson survived. But she did more than that, Waterhouse said.
“She became a terrific graduate student, one of the strongest, if not the strongest, I’ve had. In the field I’m in, her work is recognized as being very important.”
At Drexel, the institution that took over the medical program, Simpson also began stretching her teaching muscles, as a lab instructor.
“She has a real gift,” Waterhouse said.
Simpson brought that gift with her to UMMC in 1999, a year after she was married. One big reason for the move here: Dr. Rick Lin.
A professor of neurobiology and anatomical sciences at UMMC, Lin had also been at Drexel, where Simpson worked with him as a researcher.
“She cares about the medical field, as a researcher and a teacher,” Lin said. “Whatever she is doing, she puts a 100 percent effort into it.”
After Lin’s arrival here, he offered Simpson a job as a post-doctoral fellow. “It was a chance for us to continue the line of research we were already doing,” Simpson said.
Their research has led to a possible link between anti-depressants and autism. But Simpson, as an assistant professor, began making a reputation as a teacher as well.
As she taught, she remembered how she had felt as a graduate student.
“There were frustrations,” she said. “At times I thought, ‘How was I supposed to know that?’
“I guess that’s why I have a heart for students.”
She also remembered her father’s sermons on Sundays: “His message was always simple.
“I guess that’s the key thing in medical education – don’t bury the message.”
Terica Jackson of Jayess, for one, never had any trouble finding it.
“Her drawings in medical neurobiology brought everything to life,” said Jackson, now a fourth-year medical student.
“She would draw things out and talk things out. She wanted you to learn.”
Simpson’s course has something for everyone, said John Bridges of Yazoo City, president of the third-year medical class. “It has lectures, small-group learning.
“It stood out among all the courses I took as a first-year student. It helped you think as a physician.”
It doesn’t hurt that Simpson’s husband is one: Dr. Eric Zoog, now the Emergency Department chief at Baptist Health Systems in Jackson.
They’ve made a home in Brandon and have two children. Simpson has found her place here.
“Growing up in the church back home did shape me,” she said, “but it was after coming down here that I really came to understand how spiritually-based living is not just a church thing.
“I saw people living out what they believed. People down here are so caring about each other. I immediately connected to that.”
She also connected with her students, whatever their needs.
While Simpson must teach future doctors in a course slanted toward them, she must also teach future scientists, who don’t think like physicians at all, said Dr. Ian Paul, director of the Graduate Program in Neuroscience and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior.
For this, she is exceptionally qualified, said Paul, who has collaborated with Lin and Simpson on research projects.
“Kim recognizes the difference because she’s a scientist and she’s married to a physician.”
One way to illustrate the difference is the horse-zebra analogy: A medical student who hears hoof beats is taught to consider horses, not zebras.
A graduate student learns to consider zebras, horses, giraffes and any other hoofed creature that isn’t extinct.
“A scientist has a year or two to come up with an answer,” Paul said. “A physician has a day or a couple of hours.” So, if it sounds like a horse, it probably is one.
Aware of the zebra rule, Simpson eventually developed a teaching assistant program: Senior level graduate students who had already taken the course served as coaches for her grad students.
The TAs taught graduate students to “go with their gut,” Paul said.
“Not surprisingly, some of their scores were the best in the class.”
Xu Hou, another fourth-year graduate student, is a former T.A.
“I could tell Dr. Simpson spent a lot of time on this course,” she said. “And she spent 50 percent of her time outside the classroom for her students.”
Word of Simpson’s feats reached Pennsylvania. In 2012, Drexel University honored her with the Graduate Citation Award for her research and teaching.
“It’s the highest distinction the College of Medicine bestows on a biomedical science graduate,” Waterhouse said.
For her part, Simpson shares the credit with a core group of faculty, her teaching assistants, clinicians who participate in the classes and her mentors, including Dr. Duane Haines, former director of the medical neurobiology course.
“I’ve learned from the best,” she said.
The best, of course, includes the late pastor of Grace United Presbyterian Church in Horsham.