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Published in CenterView on May 30, 2013

Neuroscientist receives inaugural UMMC faculty award for student engagement

By Jack Mazurak

In one corner of the School of Medicine’s histology lab, first-year medical students crowd around a whiteboard as a professor sketches brain structures.

In another, they play a Jeopardy!-like neuroscience review game with questions projected on a wall.

At the back, another group gathers around a senior faculty and teaching assistant duo with a TV monitor discussing case studies.

The activity is the result of efforts to engage students and improve learning through hands-on and non-traditional means, said Dr. Kimberly Simpson, a neuroscientist and associate professor of neurobiology and anatomical sciences.

As director of the school’s medical neurobiology course, she’s made student engagement a priority.

“We always had these open-access self-study module reviews with faculty circulating around, waiting to help students,” said Simpson. “Last year, I said ‘I think we could make this a more interactive learning experience.’ So we implemented these stations and we saw more students take advantage of our educational resources than ever before.”

In May, Dr. James Keeton, vice chancellor for health affairs, gave Simpson the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s inaugural Regions Bank TEACH Prize.

The Toward Educational Advancement in Care and Health Award, which includes a $10,000 stipend, recognizes a faculty member who exemplifies student engagement, intellectual challenge and dedication to the craft of education. The prize will be awarded annually.

“Kim is very deserving of this award – the medical neurobiology course is widely recognized by our medical students as one of the best courses in the preclinical curriculum,” said Dr. Michael Lehman, professor and chair of neurobiology and anatomical sciences. “That’s due in large part to the hard-working efforts of Kim and her mentor (and former chair of the department), Dr. Duane Haines.”

Changes to the twice-weekly lab complement an enlivened lecture portion of the medical neurobiology course.

“By partnering with clinicians who explain real-life scenarios, and patients who volunteer to demonstrate what the presentation of a specific injury looks like, we essentially bring the hospital to the students,” she said.

Haines set that in motion years ago, inviting clinicians from the departments of neurology, neurosurgery orthopedicas and psychiatry and human behavior. Simpson expanded the roster and now 18 clinicians contribute to small- and large-group interactions in the course.

A minister disabled from a spinal injury also joins the students to talk about treating the whole person, not just the injury and symptoms.

“This clinical interaction enriches the course and really helps promote retention of the information. It brings the material to life.”

Simpson came to Mississippi from her native Philadelphia in 1999 as a post-doctoral researcher. She worked in Dr. Rick C. S. Lin’s laboratory and took a position as an assistant professor in 2002.

She and her husband, Dr. Eric Zoog, Emergency Department chief at Baptist Health Systems in Jackson, live in Brandon with their two children, Samantha, 8, and Jackson, 3.

Simpson still collaborates with Lin, professor of neurobiology and anatomical sciences. The last few years, they published research on the effects of early-life antidepressant exposure as related to brain development in rat pups.

The work points to possible connections between pregnant mothers taking antidepressants and autism in their children.

Lehman said Simpson is not only a superb educator, but also a dedicated neuroscience researcher. Drexel University honored her this year with an Alumni Citation Award, recognizing her scientific achievements.

“In the coming years, she will be playing a leading role as we work toward integration of the medical neuroscience curriculum and the building of translational bridges between basic and clinical neuroscience,” Lehman said.

Simpson is helping to make those connections through teaching. She noted that second- and third-year Ph.D. students in the Program in Neuroscience who participate as teaching assistants in the medical neurobiology course have helped create a community that encourages active learning.
“We essentially have a course within a course,” she said.

The TAs get experience in giving lessons, grading papers and working with individual students. They develop skills essential to teaching. The medical students not only learn about brain structures, functions and pathologies, but they get a sense of what basic science researchers do.

Simpson said the big goal is to foster professional relationships so M.D.s and Ph.D.s can collaborate to move laboratory findings into clinical treatments. She wants to promote interaction early on and encourage teamwork across different disciplines.

“My big emphasis is on team effort,” she said. “I believe if we contribute our individual strengths to a common goal we will realize success.”

Having Simpson as the inaugural Regions Bank TEACH Prize recipient is a most appropriate choice, said Dr. Robin Rockhold, professor of pharmacology and deputy chief academic officer.

“The University of Mississippi Medical Center is justifiably proud of the quality of our educators, but has never before been able to appropriately recognize the true excellence in education that characterizes our faculty,” he said. “For the first time in the history of the Medical Center, the TEACH Prize, supported by the generosity of Regions Bank, permits us to do so.”