“Teaching Was Not on the Table for Me”
Dr. Stacey Fanning Named TouroCOM Harlem Teacher of the Year
Dr. Stacey L. Fanning, Ph.D., is TouroCOM Harlem’s 2019 Frank Gray Teacher of the Year. Dr. Fanning, an assistant professor and course director for immunology, said the award was especially meaningful for her, given that she deliberately decided against becoming a teacher during her undergraduate studies.
“Teaching was not on the table for me,” laughed Dr. Fanning. “I had come to recognize in my own experience that a teacher can make or break a course. I had courses I thought I would love, but the teacher wasn’t great and that spoiled it for me. I also had classes where I thought the subject matter was not particularly interesting to me, like physics, but the professor was great and the class was fulfilling. Those experiences made me shy away from teaching. I worried that I could potentially ruin a subject for a student because I couldn’t teach it.”
As an undergraduate, Dr. Fanning studied biology and found herself in a virology course with a particularly strong teacher.
“That’s what led me to immunology and I just lucked out,” recalled Dr. Fanning. “That initial interaction was enough to push me in that direction. From the second I started I knew I loved it.”
Despite her hesitations, Fanning discovered that she had a natural knack for teaching during her graduate and post-doc work.
“I found I was the one who was taking on the educator role in the lab as new staff came in or rotating students,” said Dr. Fanning. “I would sit with them and give them the basics, the underlying biology of what we were trying to study. After I embraced that role and got good feedback, I realized that I might want to teach. I started tiptoeing into the field: giving myself lecturing experience when I was finishing up my post-doc.”
Dr. Fanning’s first position was as an assistant professor at The College of New Jersey. Part of her interest in teaching stemmed from her own enjoyment of the materials and her talent as a story teller.
“Immunology is not one of the subjects where you can memorize a bunch of facts,” said Dr. Fanning. “You have to understand the concept behind the facts. I found that by creating a scenario or a story, it helped my students keep all the pieces together.”
Dr. Fanning joined TouroCOM Harlem in 2014.
“Initially, I wasn’t sure I could teach on the correct level for medical students, but I thought: just let me apply and see what it’s about,” said Dr. Fanning. “Right off the bat at TouroCOM, I realized how smart and how motivated my students were. They’re here because they’re passionate about science and biology and medicine. Seeing that level of engagement was exciting and made me more excited to teach them.”
Dr. Fanning attributes her success with her students and her students’ success in her immunology courses to the way she teaches the material.
“I love putting human characters behind the story,” said Dr. Fanning. “My cells always have a face and are acting like people. I use that imagery to tell that story and that makes it fun and makes it make more sense. I’m always putting up little immunology cartoons and puns, showing them as warriors or little army guys.” (Her students know the difference between the standard T-Cell and the Mr. T-Cell, a cell that pities the fool or foreign microbe that attempts to harm the body.)
“I enjoy the challenge that my students give me,” said Dr. Fanning. “They are such brilliant students that they occasionally stump me with a question. I’m constantly on my toes with them. I learn new things because they push me. I think being a successful teacher comes down to being enthusiastic about the subject matter you’re teaching. Students can see how excited I am and how much joy I get out of talking about the immune system.”
OMS II Sarah Fahmy, a member of the Teacher of the Year committee, said that the admiration that Dr. Fanning has for her students is easily reciprocated.
“Dr. Fanning is always available for her students,” said Fahmy. “Whether it’s to explain a point in immunology or to talk about personal experiences, she’s always there for us. Everything in medical school is given to us very fast, so it’s really, really nice when someone sits down with you and goes over the basics and takes their time and is patient with you.”