Get to Know a Grantee - Dr. Sarah Leupen

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Sarah Leupen
Dr. Sarah Leupen, a senior lecturer from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is serving this year as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Charles University, Faculty of Medicine in Pilsen. Dr. Leupen was trained both as a neuroscientist and as a physiologist, and teaches courses on physiology, nutrition, and reproduction. She is working this year at the Charles University medical school in Pilsen, teaching courses, and also offering faculty development workshops at both the Pilsen and Prague Charles University campuses, as well as at the University of West Bohemia, also in Pilsen. Read below to find out what it’s like teaching at a medical school in a foreign country, what Dr. Leupen loves about living in Pilsen, and why she is passionate about the Fulbright Program.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • U.S. Position: Senior Lecturer, College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD
  • Czech Affiliation: Faculty of Medicine in Pilsen, Charles University 
  • Project: Evidence-Based Pedagogical Innovation in Health Sciences Education 
  • Discipline/Specialization: Biology/Physiology 
  • Academic Background: Ph.D., Neuroscience, Northwestern University, IL,
  • Favorite Czech word: (Sady) Pětatřicátníků
  • Favorite Quote: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” –Wendell Berry

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
My name Is Sarah Leupen, and I teach physiology at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, UMBC. I also train other teachers in how to use evidence based teaching techniques in their teaching, which includes things like the flipped classroom and active learning techniques. I am originally from Ohio, and I got my Ph.D. at Northwestern University. I did a postdoc in Boston, and after my postdoc, I married my husband, and then we did volunteer work in the rainforest in Surinam for a year. That was amazing! Then, we came back, I got my first faculty job, we had twins, and a few years later, we moved to Maryland, where we are now.

And what work are you doing this year at Charles University, Pilsen?
I have two jobs there. One is teaching classes, and the other is to train faculty here in these evidence based teaching techniques. Every semester, I give four teaching workshops, and I do lots of other faculty development workshops at the flagship Charles University campus in Prague, at the University of West Bohemia here in Pilsen, and at some other places as well. I also help faculty individually, by observing their classes, giving them feedback, and helping them prepare their teaching materials.

For teaching, I’ve taught three classes, two last semester and one this semester. I was invited to give them on whatever I wanted to, specialty topics. Last semester, I taught one on the physiology of obesity, which is something I’m interested in, and the second one was on the physiology of pregnancy, and especially the partially conflicting relationship between the fetus and the mother, because we think of the fetus and the mother being aligned in their interests, but actually their interests are somewhat opposed, and that makes for a lot of interesting biology. Then the class this semester, is on circadian rhythms, so 24-hour rhythms and our biology, which ought to be leading us to give medical treatments at particular times of day, but in fact usually, we give medical treatments at times of day that are convenient, rather than those that are best predicted by the biology. That has been really fun, too.

I read that you are a certified trainer and consultant in a teaching strategy called Team-Based Learning. Can you describe what that teaching strategy is about?

Team-Based Learning (TBL) is one kind of what are called ‘the flipped classroom’ techniques. The flipped classroom means that students are getting some basic knowledge outside of class, whether from reading or videos or whatever, and then in class, you give students problems to solve. The specific thing about TBL is that first of all, the students work in teams in class, so they spend all of the class period working in permanent teams to solve problems. When they come to class, they take a little quiz on the reading or whatever it was, and then they take the quiz again as a team, and then they solve these problems. The result is that students are very motivated. They come to class prepared, because they don’t want to look stupid in front of their teammates, or fail the quiz, and because they’re prepared, you’re able to have really high level discussions about difficult questions. Basically, it’s a teaching method that incorporates everything that we know about how humans learn, or almost everything that we know. It’s one good way to put a class together.

What are some differences you have perceived between Czech and American university students, if any?
Well, I think certainly, my students at UMBC are much more diverse than the Czech students. That’s the biggest, clearly noticeable difference. Many of the Czech students are also from the immediate area, and often their parents are from the area as well, which is quite different from my students at UMBC. In terms of the classroom though, I think the differences are smaller than the similarities. It is true as we were told, that Czech students are often reluctant to give their own viewpoint about something, but I feel like in my classes, that’s often because they know that their English isn’t perfect, and they don’t want to make an error, even though what they have to say conceptually is often very strong. Mostly, it’s not a big problem in my classes, because my classes are structured around students working in teams to answer problems. They’re very happy talk to each other to solve problems, and they’re very good at it, even though I think they haven’t had much experience doing that. Afterwards, I do call on people to justify the teams’ responses. That’s harder for the Czech students. I get more responses from the international students, even though often the Czech students have better English than some of the international students. For example though, Portuguese, German, and Greek students don’t worry as much about whether their English is perfect when they respond. They don’t see that as important, which I agree with them about.

And on a university level, how is your host institution, Charles University Pilsen, different from your home institution, University of Maryland Baltimore County?
It’s a lot different, because this is a medical school, and at my home university, I teach in the undergraduate program, so I don’t teach medical students. The difference is smaller than it appears though, because the students I teach are the same age, and they’re planning to be doctors, many of them, at UMBC. It’s just that the system is different, where in the US, you go to university for four years, and then to medical school, and here you begin six years of medical school right after high school, as is true throughout Europe. So, not as different as it appears, but certainly my students at UMBC interact with students who are from many different majors and career plans, whereas here, the students are all focused on their goal of becoming physicians. That’s quite different, and then as I mentioned earlier, the diversity of the student body is quite a bit different, although 25 percent of the students here at Pilsen’s medical faculty are international students, so there certainly is some diversity at the university.

How do you think your year here in Pilsen will effect or influence your teaching back at UMBC?
I’ve learned a lot! I observed a lot of people’s classes, and I learn a lot from them. I didn’t come here just to tell people how to teach; I hope I learned things about how to teach, too. An example would be that, here even with large groups of students, they often do oral exams. Oral exams have their problems, objectivity, for example, but they have tremendously high validity, because you know from talking to people, that you can get a quite good impression very quickly of how well someone understands something when they’re trying to explain it to you orally. The way that they do oral exams is something we should consider doing at UMBC, and elsewhere in the US. I think we said, ‘oh, we have too many students, or it’s too subjective,’ and haven’t done them, but I think that was throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need to think about ways to use oral exams, or at least oral discussions, as a method of assessment for students, so that’s just one example of things that I have had my mind changed about while observing education here. 

And how is living in Pilsen different from living in Baltimore?
Well, it’s much smaller, which I really like, so I love it that we can go to the opera, and be home in ten minutes on the tram. It has this cozy feel of being small, but it’s not so small. It’s still a city, but I love it that I run into people that I know around town, and you feel like you get to know it pretty well. I really enjoy living in Pilsen, and the public transport is about a thousand times better than it is in Baltimore, which is going to be the thing that I miss the most when I go back to Maryland, on a practical level. I’ll miss people, too, but in terms of practical things, I’ll miss public transportation. I love also all the free apples around town! There are so many apple trees everywhere, and I love that! I made my sons’ birthday pie from found, picked apples in the fall, and that means that in about two weeks there’s going to be apple blossoms all over town. I also like that we can take the tram to end of the line, and walk into the woods. We love to go for hikes and go birding, so to have the woods so close, and to have it so easy to live without a car, is really wonderful.

When you were looking at Fulbright, why did you choose the Czech Republic to apply for specifically?
My husband is a classical musician, and so we thought it would be exciting to be somewhere where we could go see a lot of performances, and be immersed in western classical music, but we also wanted to go somewhere that was very different culturally from the US, and that wasn’t an English-speaking country. So, we considered New Zealand, and rejected it for example, and we never wanted to go to Britain, or anything like that, because we wanted it to be different.

And what is your overall impression of life in the Czech Republic?
That’s a big question! Read my blog if you want to hear all of my impressions of life in the Czech Republic, because I have so many impressions of life here! We’ve just really enjoyed being here, and I could go on and on about the public transportation. We’ve really experienced so much kindness from people. I would say, that the three people I work with most closely at Charles, are like three of the nicest people I know at all, in the whole world, so just to know them has been tremendous.

It is a challenge that people feel very closed at times to strangers. It feels like it’s hard to get to know people that I don’t have any formal introduction to. Fortunately, I have had a lot of formal introductions, so I still have gotten to know lots of people, but I think that’s something that I now appreciate more about my own country, that people are really very open in the United States. Not universally, of course, but I really like that. I think people should talk to strangers more.

And why do you think international education and exchanges are important for people to experience?
Mainly because it widens your perspective of possible solutions to challenges that you have, in teaching or whatever your field is. We think we know of a wide variety of ways to address problems, but actually, it’s quite narrow until you go outside your own culture, and see how other people are addressing these problems. It just gives you more tools in your toolbox to improve education, or whatever your field is. Plus, it’s fun!

Definitely! And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
You know when I started, I wouldn’t have had anything useful to say about it. I would have said something boiler plate from the Fulbright website, and I’m not sure I would have really even believed it, but now I so believe in it! I so see how valuable it is to have a real, deep, months or year-long interaction with professionals from another place, because you really learn so much from each other. By getting the perspective of another place, you don’t just get new ideas, but you see how there can be a whole different perspective on the problem, or process, that you’re working on. Both sides can have such tremendous benefit from that. I’ve certainly seen that at the medical school, where some of faculty have said, ‘It feels like we’ve been waiting for years for someone like you to come!’ and then from my side, too, I feel like, I wish I’d had this perspective before, a broader idea on education. Even beyond education, ideas about how the world works and how nations should interact are viewed differently here, and I like learning these different perspectives.

And with that, what has been the most rewarding for you so far from this experience?
It’s a tie! On the one hand, I think my interactions with the faculty members of the medical school have been so rewarding. We’ve both really gained a lot from our interactions, and I feel like people are really grateful for whatever I’m able to contribute to improving pedagogy here. I’m also really grateful for what I’ve learned, so that’s been tremendous.

I would say the other half of it is being in a different culture and country with my family. That’s been so rewarding to travel to new places, learn Czech, and just take it all in together. It’s really bonded us more as a family, I would say. I’m really happy that we’re able to give this experience to the children, because I think it will make a difference on some level for the rest of their lives to have been here this year.

You are already three quarters of the way through your grant right now! What is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
I still have a lot more faculty development work to do at Charles University in Prague. I’ll be working to help one of the faculties there, who are thinking about changing their curriculum, as well as giving faculty development workshops. Also, most of my workshops at the University of West Bohemia are still to come, so I’m looking forward to interacting more with the faculty there, as well.

There are also some places in the Czech Republic that we haven’t been to yet. We’re going to Kutná Hora next weekend, so I can’t wait for that! We also haven’t been to Karlovy Vary yet, but we’re going there soon, and we’ll also be having lots of visitors in the spring! I’m looking forward to showing people Pilsen, because I love it here.

And what was it like relocating with two young children to another country for a year?
It was really easy, because they’re incredibly adaptable children, and I think being twins, they lose themselves in each other, so they can happily settle anywhere. They also really love new food and languages, so that’s been fun for them as well. Since they’re home schooled, they didn’t have a difficult transition to a new school here. So, that was quite easy for them as well. They love playing football with the local boys, which they do almost every day. It’s been easy.

Do you have any advice for people considering applying for a Fulbright grant?
You should do it! Of course for the professional reasons, but especially for how it will change and hopefully improve you personally, as a human.

That’s great advice! And how do you feel about everything right now, at this moment?
Mainly, I feel lucky. Just so lucky to have had this opportunity, and to be able to be in this situation where you go to a new country and everything is so new, interesting, and complicated. It really makes you better, and you learn to let go of the fear, and just enjoy the newness. I feel like it’s really made me better. It’s made me humbler, and more compassionate towards other people.

I just love all the novelty. I love that with the new food, new people, new language, and the new birds and trees, I’m learning so much! I love that feeling of seeing new things, and learning.

How would you sum up your Fulbright experience in one word?


And is there anything else you’d like to add?
The people at the Fulbright office in Prague are amazing, and they make everything wonderful. Just knowing that they’re there, you know everything will be okay, because they are so kind, so competent, and so efficient! Big thanks to them!

Sarah Leupen with her family in Stary Plzenec

If you’d like to read more about Dr. Sarah Leupen’s experiences in the Czech Republic, check out her personal blog at https://czechinginblog.wordpress.com/