2017 Distinguished Teacher Award

Kat Calabrese, M.D., and Susan Ceryak, Ph.D.
May 18, 2017

For Kat Calabrese, M.D. ’08, RESD ’12, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), it was about the “ah-ha” moment, the lightbulb going off when students understood a complicated concept; for her colleague, Susan Ceryak, Ph.D. ’94, M.S. ’90, associate professor of pharmacology and physiology at SMHS, it was tackling problems, asking questions, and finding the answers. Despite their divergent teaching philosophies, both Calabrese and Ceryak have one thing in common: they are viewed as among the top medical educators at SMHS.

This year, the two are the recipients of the Distinguished Teacher Award, which honors faculty members who have demonstrated exceptional skill in the classroom. Calabrese teaches emergency medicine, point-of-care ultrasound, as well as an elective course with senior medical students on being a clinical educator, with first- through fourth-year M.D. students as her pupils. Ceryak, on the other hand, works within the pharmacology and physiology discipline, teaching graduate, medical, and physician assistant students. She also co-directs the cardio, pulmonary, and renal block of the M.D. curriculum.

Here, Calabrese and Ceryak speak about what led them to teach and their thoughts on being honored as “distinguished teachers.”

How did you get into teaching?

Calabrese: I’ve been involved in teaching since I’ve been a professional. In my previous career as a nurse, I was a peer educator and helped develop curricula for new nurses coming in. For me it was the same motivation back then of wanting to help them find their “ah-ha” moment, wanting to see people get it, understand, and do a better job of taking care of people. … And my mentors, the people I looked up to and felt had the most positive impact on my learning, their patients, and their community, they were all educators.

Ceryak: I got my Ph.D. here in 1994, actually in biochemistry. Shortly after that, I was teaching graduate students, and then eventually I got a research grant and an appointment in pharmacology in 2000. I was working in a molecular oncology group, and then I got research funding, so I had my own lab for a while. I continued to teach graduate students, had graduate students in my lab, and taught an occasional course for the medical students.

In 2011-­12, our department decided to advertise for somebody who was solely going to be a medical educator. I was research faculty, I wasn’t tenure-track. Research funding was getting to be really difficult, and my colleagues encouraged me to apply for the medical educator position. In 2012, I transitioned to a medical educator as I was starting to wind down my research.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Calabrese: My favorite part about teaching in general is seeing the lightbulb go off; having someone struggle with a concept and then see their “ah-ha” moment. It’s something that invigorates me and it’s something that challenges me. If I have someone who’s having a hard time understanding a concept, I have to modify my approach to help them to take away the concept that I’m trying to convey.

The benefit for me of being involved in teaching the students, going all the way from them being first-year medical students through them graduating from ER residency, is that I get to see them become doctors. I get to see them become patient advocates. I think there’s nothing more rewarding than being able to [not only] impact young learners in a positive way, but also see them down the road after they’ve done their training and being confident that this is someone you’d be more than happy to have take care of someone you love.

I think this is the end-game for me; meaning I’m going to die a teacher. [laughter] When I think about my career in emergency medicine, there’s a difference between working in an academic center and working in a community hospital, and the thing that I would miss the most if I went to the community site is the sense of collegiality and professional development that I see in this environment. I’m continuously inspired by my students and my peers, so I’m not going anywhere.

Ceryak: I have had the good fortune to absolutely love my work for my entire life. I love research, I love identifying problems, asking questions, figuring out the answer to the questions. I like collaborating with people in a lab. So, I was somewhat apprehensive when I switched over to a sole medical educator position. Part of the transition — I know Dr. Calabrese went through this too — was that I participated in the Master Teacher Leadership Development Program, which is a year-long certificate program that consists of six six-week classes on education, assessment, qualitative research, leadership, organization, and working in teams; I was apprehensive to start that as well.

I guess I wasn’t prepared to embrace [the program and teaching] as much as I did. I learned a lot about that. It kind of gave me a different approach to education. I really find it intellectually stimulating to be a medical educator. I feel like I’m always learning something new, and I feel like I’m always facing new challenges about how best to effectively impact student learning, which was surprising. I enjoy it. It’s not really that much different than running a research lab.

How did you feel about being nominated for and winning the Distinguished Teacher Award?

Calabrese: It is an incredible honor. Many of my mentors over the years who I have had the fortune and pleasure to work with are previous Distinguished Teacher recipients, and it’s a really humbling thing to now be recognized alongside them. They were so instrumental in helping me develop my career path at GW and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my career and how I approach teaching. It’s really awesome to now be in a position where I am hanging out with them.

Ceryak: I’m extremely honored. I am surprised. We have 70 people who teach in our block; I know many hard-working and dedicated faculty members at this institution who teach in the medical curriculum. I really can’t identify any particular characteristics that distinguish me from them. I’m still somewhat surprised about this, but very, very, very honored.

We also don’t do anything alone. We collaborate with our colleagues on pretty much everything we do, so, again, I find it ironic to be distinguished because I don’t think I do anything alone. That’s what’s so great about GW — everybody is so collegial.