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School of Medicine Virginia Commonwealth University VCU Medical Center

Standards and Policies

Lifelong Learning

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Faculty, housestaff and students should:

  • Recognize their positions as role models for other members of the health care team.
  • Carry out academic, clinical and research responsibilities in a conscientious manner, make every effort to exceed expectations and make a commitment to life-long learning.
  • Be mindful of the limits of one’s knowledge and abilities and seek help from others whenever appropriate.

Comments on Lifelong Learning from VCU SOM Teaching Excellence Award Winners


Isaac K. Wood, M.D., F.A.A.C.A.P.

“I learn a great deal from my students in addition to
what I teach.”

“To be an educator means you automatically become a lifelong learner. You must keep abreast of the advances in your field of specialty to teach state-of-the-art material to students. You also must keep yourself aware of changes in adult education. Lastly, teaching is a two-way process. I learn a great deal from my students in addition to what I teach.”

Isaac K. “Ike” Wood, M.D., F.A.A.C.A.P.
Fellow of the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry
Senior Associate Dean for Medical Education and Student Affairs
Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics
Director of Undergraduate Medical Education in Psychiatry
2002 Faculty Teaching Excellence Award (VCU SOM’s highest recognition for teaching)

Rita Willett, M.D.

“In the first month of my internship, I helped care for a dying man whose disease had not been described at the time of my medical school graduation.”

“In July of 1981, the first month of my internship, a thin young man with odd scattered purple skin nodules and pneumonia was admitted to the General Medicine team. He had recently moved from Florida to his parent’s home in North Carolina because he was too ill to care for himself. None of us understood why he was so ill. A third-year resident matched his story with a June 5th Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report description of homosexual men with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. We saw the fear in the young man’s eyes and the grief of his parents as he was transferred to intensive care where he would eventually die. We witnessed the discomfort and intolerance of some hospital staff toward his partner, sitting at his bedside and holding his hand. None of us understood how to treat this illness.

In the first month of my internship, I had helped to care for a dying man whose disease had not even been described at the time of my medical school graduation. The memory of that experience has been with me for over twenty years, a dramatic illustration that I would need to continue learning throughout my career in medicine. As I reflect on those early years of the AIDS epidemic, I am also struck by how much we taught each other, not just about the ever-expanding research data, but also about ourselves as doctors and our capacity to care for frightened patients and the loved ones who held their hands.”

Rita Willett, M.D.
Associate Professor of Internal Medicine
Foundations of Clinical Medicine Course Director
1999 Teaching Excellence Award for Educational Innovation

George W. Leichnetz, Ph.D.

“To me, a conscientious faculty member should demonstrate continued evidence of true scholarship.”

“To me, a conscientious faculty member should demonstrate continued evidence of true scholarship: reading and publishing in his/her area of clinical or basic science expertise, creating new devices for the dissemination of knowledge in his/her field (e.g. development of computer-based instructional materials), conducting clinical or basic science research, attending scientific or clinical meetings, staying engaged with the faculty member’s chosen field.

Being a senior unfunded faculty member does not diminish the importance I place on scholarship. I continue to read actively in the field of neuroscience and never give the same lecture to medical or graduate students twice. Updating lectures includes incorporating new information as well as improving my presentation skills and teaching images. To enhance teaching we are currently developing a new computer-based instructional program on neuroanatomy for medical and graduate students. Regular attendance of professional meetings allows me to stay abreast of changes and exciting new developments in the field so I may bring this perspective to my course and lectures. Our younger faculty and my students also help me to continue and promote scholarship as I mentor their development of professionalism and teaching skills. ”

George W. Leichnetz, Ph.D.
Professor of Anatomy
Course Director, M1 Neurosciences
2004 Teaching Excellence Distinguished Mentor Award

Linda Costanzo, Ph.D.

“The most significant lesson we leave in the classroom is that our own learning is a work in progress.”

“The most significant lesson we leave in the classroom, more than facts and concepts, is that our own learning is a work in progress. We should relish, even seek, opportunities that reveal to our students that we are also students. They should know that their questions have us scrambling to the library, that we burn the midnight oil, and that we still have a surprising number of ‘aha’ moments.

Of course, there is a critical line between revealing our own learning to be a work in progress and demonstrating appropriate command of our subject. The teacher who steps to the podium saying, ‘Gee, I’m not sure, maybe, does anyone know?’ is a disaster, not a work in progress. The effective teacher has presence, is certain of facts, is planful, and has firm understanding. Yet, the teacher is also a lifetime student who reads, questions, and constantly revises that firm understanding.

Bob Downs tells a great story about his biochemistry professor at Duke Medical School (around 1970), who ended the course with this message: ‘I must tell you something before we end. There are these new chemicals, just discovered, called prostaglandins. They are ubiquitous, and I suspect they will be found to be important. I don’t want you to leave my course without hearing the word ‘prostaglandins.’ Keep your eyes open for them.’ Knowing Bob, he probably does remember most of the facts he learned in biochemistry, but his professor’s best message and most enduring legacy was this: ‘we leave off here; you are responsible for the rest.’

What I love most about the prostaglandin story is the urgency. There is a clear sense, not only of his professor’s unabashed scholarship, but also his sense of responsibility—time is up, but don’t go, there’s one more thing. Professional attitude is ‘do as I do.’”

Linda Costanzo, Ph.D.
Professor of Physiology
Course Director, M1 Physiology
1999 Faculty Teaching Excellence Award (VCU SOM’s highest recognition for teaching)
Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society
Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teaching Award for 2004

Joann N. Bodurtha, M.D., M.P.H.

“Life involves discovering your talents and using them
to help others.”

“It is a wonderful gift to be able to be a doctor. Life involves discovering what your talents are and using them to help others. Each patient and student raises questions that require investigation—sometimes as simple as reviewing a metabolic pathway and sometimes as complex as writing an R01 or training grant. It is easier to rest at night if you are conscientious. Lifelong learning helps prevent the brain from shriveling up, as does nurturing/teaching others and spreading gratitude and healing.”

Joann Bodurtha, M.D., M.P.H.
Professor of Human Genetics and Pediatrics
1999 Teaching Excellence Award for Educational Innovation

Cynthia M. Heldberg, Ph.D.

“Learning means developing a keen sense of the intellectual and emotional status of those around you.”

“Carrying out my academic responsibilities in a conscientious manner means caring for students as an advisor, counselor and mentor with an awareness of the long ranging effects of words and attitudes on a student’s vision of themselves. In order to do this even reasonably well, one must commit to learning as a daily experience. Learning cannot be viewed as the acquisition of facts and data only. Learning means developing a keen sense of the intellectual and emotional status of those around you. To do that, each of us must spend as much time and energy reaching out to diverse people as we do on reading books. With every conversation with a new applicant or student, I realize that I still have much to learn about the human condition and each individual’s response to it. I believe that I will never stop learning about others until I can no longer see, feel or hear.”

Cynthia M. Heldberg, Ph.D.
Associate Dean for Admissions
2002 Teaching Excellence Distinguished Mentor Award

Robert A. Adler, M.D.

“It will never be possible to know everything; even as I have written this, new information has been published.”

“Being a student forever is one of the privileges and one of the responsibilities of the medical profession. The never-ending clinical challenges facing the practicing physician should make ‘keeping up’ a natural thing to do. The problem is that there are not enough hours in the day to do everything, and it is easy to fall back on old habits and knowledge rather than devote time to new learning. What to do?

I chose the easy way by becoming an academic physician. The students, house staff and other trainees bombard me with questions. I have to know the current medical literature. However, in return the trainees teach the professor. So, one way to keep current is to have students or residents work in your office. It is clearly a two-way street. Give them assignments on specific topics. Admit when you don’t know enough about a particular problem. When I attend on general medicine inpatient wards, I immediately tell the team that I don’t know everything—and that I am there to learn as much as they are.

A second method is to carefully choose conferences to attend. It is obvious that some are better than others. I attend medical grand rounds regularly because important topics in diverse areas are presented. I also attend grand rounds in my subspecialty, endocrinology. Be very careful of sessions sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. Some presentations are excellent and worth your time. Others are not. It is important to know the credentials of the presenter. Ask your colleagues or experts in the field so that you won’t find yourself trapped in a sales presentation. Be friendly and pleasant with the sales representatives, and have them leave literature rather than speak with you at length. Then you can separate the information provided by science from that provided by Madison Avenue.

Reading is essential. It can be done in small doses; often that’s the only way. I skim the abstracts of several general journals. I like the ACP Journal Club because it reviews many journals for me. There are other review services available. Try to skim the journal abstracts as the journal arrives rather than piling them up. I also get several subspecialty journals. Here I skim abstracts of articles of interest and have my secretary photocopy (or I will print from web editions) specific articles of greatest importance. These I will read in depth, when I can.

I use Up-to-Date as a first source for a clinical problem I need help on. Today, we have such easy access to information that learning about a particular problem is less trouble than the ‘good old days.’ Use Pub Med to search out a very specific problem. It is amazing how quickly you can find the key article that answers the question. Print out the abstract and have office staff find the article if necessary. For medical information that appeals to the general public, I look at the Health Section of The New York Times on the Web every day. This takes only a few minutes, and yet it provides information (or misinformation) that patients may bring to my office.

A little bit of humility goes a long way in the process of being a lifelong learner. It will never be possible to know everything because, even as I have written this, new information has been published. Accept the fact that there will be holes in your knowledge base, but keep trying to learn the most important things. After all, you are being paid to be a student forever. Is there anything better?”

Dr. Robert A. Adler, M.D.
Professor of Internal Medicine
2004 Teaching Excellence Award in Clinical Teaching