Jonathan White, professor of surgery at the University of Alberta, has been named a 2014 3M National Teaching Fellow. White is the sixth professor within the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry to receive this prestigious honour.
“It’s my job to help students see behind the surgeon’s mask and inspire a wider range of students to learn about surgery,” he said. “I want to show learners that surgeons are made, not born. You don’t have to have a certain kind of hands or a special sort of heart. I’m trying to tell students that I’m an ordinary guy and if I can become a surgeon, maybe they can do the same—and they might be really good at it.”
As the senior director for undergraduate education in the Department of Surgery and the Tom Williams Endowed Chair in Surgical Education, White has opportunity to teach students at all stages of their education. He gives lectures to first- and second-year medical students, runs the first-year shadowing program, teaches the third-year course on general surgery and founded the summer student research program in surgery. Additionally, he teaches a masters-level course on assessment and program evaluation and works with residents in the general surgery residency program. Since he assumed the senior director role in 2007, he has developed new curriculum and assessment techniques for the third year general surgery course and the fourth year course in specialty surgery, which he also taught for five years.
But it’s his work outside of the classroom that has made White a bit of a celebrity in the world of surgical education. In 2008, he recorded a few podcasts to on basic surgical concepts that he called Surgery 101. After they were posted to iTunes, the podcasts quickly gained popularity in an unexpected way: medical students in Brazil, Germany and China enjoyed them as much as UAlberta students. The next step was to create the Surgery 101 app, which is available for iOS, Android and Windows Mobile.
Fast forward to 2014: the app has nearly 150 episodes with topics that range from basic anatomy to neurosurgery and boasts more than 1.2 million downloads worldwide. White couldn’t be happier. He not only helps medical students in more than 170 countries prepare for rounds and exams, but also gives UAlberta students a chance to work with surgical specialists to create podcasts on topics that align with their interests. The recent transition from podcasts to video podcasts, or vodcasts—with engaging pop culture themes like Lego and the Muppets—leaves thematic possibilities wide open.
“It shows you a slightly more human side of surgery. You get the idea that surgeons are this, that and the other, but we’ve made them slightly silly by making them Muppets,” he said of the first vodcast, Muppet Surgery. “It means you can talk to them a little bit and understand what it is to be a surgeon.”
Showing the human side of surgery is a challenge he faces each day. When White is standing in front of the lecture hall, it’s not uncommon to see first- and second-year students dressed in surgeon caps and masks. He hopes getting behind the mask will help break down some of the stereotypes about surgeons. Another one of his favourite approaches is encouraging students to share their experiences through reflective writing and narrative. It also gives him an opportunity to share a few stories of his own: his life as a cancer surgeon has allowed him to share in many stories of transformation and courage, which he hopes may inspire his students.
Even in his masters-level course, he still livens up the material with the a little music.
“For the final week of my master’s class, I brought in my ukulele and, in front of the dean of education, performed a song I composed about assessment. It was to the tune of ‘The House of the Rising Sun.’ I think it sounded mostly OK,” he joked.
For White, one of the most rewarding parts of teaching is when students discover concepts on their own. In his third-year course, he sends clinical problems to the students beforehand so they can discuss the application of solutions they’ve worked out on their own. At the end of each class, he asks the students to tell him one thing that they’ve learned.
“Usually each student has learned something different and sometimes it’s something unexpected,” he explained. “I get a real buzz off of that.”
Of course, White knows that a good surgeon is nothing without his team.
“There are a lot of people I have to thanks for this award,” he noted. “My department chair, Dr. Hedden, has been enormously supportive of me and is a real champion for education in our faculty. Our undergraduate surgery team—Tracy, Shannon, Kat, Karee, Allan and Heather—are just amazing and they provide me with a lot of help and inspiration. My colleagues at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and in the wider Department of Surgery have also been key in helping me achieve this milestone. And this wouldn’t have been possible without our amazing students showing me the way!”
White will attend the conference in June when he will officially accept the award.