Teaching and Learning in UCD: An Interview with Dr Gavin Stewart

Image Credit: Gavin Stewart and Sinéad Mohan

Dr Gavin Stewart is a professor in the School of Biology and Environmental Science and has spent four years as Head of Teaching and Learning in this school. He spoke with The University Observer about some of his current research as well as his thoughts on teaching and learning in UCD.

Dr Stewart graduated from the University of Leeds with a degree in human physiology. Subsequent to this he did a PhD focussing on renal chloride channels in kidney cells which later allowed him the opportunity to obtain a postdoctoral position at Kidney Research UK. Here, he continued his focus on urea transporters which were to become an integral part of his research work for the next 20 years. 

During his time as a fellow, he researched how urea transporters operate in the colon by using rumen tissue from the stomach of a cow as a proxy. This work tracked how urea - a protein by-product - was transported into cells and broken down into nitrogen, which is an essential energy source in ruminants. In the rumen, urea is broken down into ammonia by gut bacteria which creates short-chain fatty acids that constitute 70% of the cow’s energy source - a high urea-nitrogen salvaging rate. The cow rumen can be used as a model for the human colon, which only recycles 10-20% of its urea, but this urea is more important for colonic health than energy generation as it produces acetate and butyrate that interact with the cell cycle and can reduce the likelihood of getting colon cancer. In UCD his research aims show the importance of urea transporters to human health and how the natural gut microbiota interact with the body and can cause direct impact health. 

Stewart’s current research is being done in collaboration with Dr Simone Ciuti, Assistant Professor in the School of Biology and Environmental Science, to understand the behaviour of deer in the phoenix park.  They are working together to understand if the diet of the deer affects their behaviour, with particular focus on the length of papillae in the deer rumen. These papillae are used for absorbing food and there are many gender-specific and physical differences that can be seen between them in wild versus captive populations. Stewart maintains that it is essential to, “always look at the tissue level as well as the cellular level” as this provides a broader view of the analysis and by measuring the length of the papillae you can see obvious physical differences that may be missed in other comparative analysis.

Professor Stewart also expressed some commentary on how teaching and research should be intertwined in UCD. As a teaching university, UCD requires all academic staff to be involved in their own research as well as having an involvement in teaching. In Stewart’s opinion creating a balance between the two can be complex and one is often prioritised over the other. To maintain the level of enthusiasm needed to keep students interested and to have a fresh take on teaching modules year on year and the staff need to focus on teaching, saying that, “If you can maintain interest in what you are doing it never really feels like work”.

Stewart comments that the flexibility of modules is a great addition to a student's degree but expresses how it can lead to a lack of focus and less detailed learning from first year, as from his experience the vast majority of students know where they are going to be when they enter college, however, he does admit that this changes based on each individual student. He compares the four-year degree cycle with that of the four-year Olympic cycle where it is important to build good habits in first year which will help in the final years. The large variety of choice can lead students to only learn for the module rather than to gain the knowledge itself. He uses the example of referencing which is explained in many first-year modules but often not remembered as a skill further along in the degree, as many students have not maintained this information after the module ends; “students don’t learn in a long term manner unless they are invested in it”. 

Despite being Head of Teaching and Learning in his school, Stewart displays doubtfulness in the system and its ability to accept changes. He notes that the fees paid by students are taken for granted and are seemingly non-refundable, which was made evident during the COVID-19 situation. As an example, he explained how the Master’s students that work in his department usually have six weeks of lab work over the summer, and that this was reduced to two or three weeks. Originally Dr Stewart asked higher faculty levels if it would be possible for one of the Master’s students to be offered a partial refund due to their lack of laboratory work, as approximately one thousand euro of their fees are set aside for consumable materials. This request was not entertained by higher faculty, and the decision was made to have the students return to college over the summer despite having a reduced experience and COVID restrictions. When asked as a staff member does [he] have any influence on these matters and can [he] make changes from [his] position he replied simply that “you can say things in meetings if you like but it makes no difference whatsoever” and states that “You can have strong opinions on what should happen but you can’t go and change the opinions of others with facts and logic”, which is the converse of what students would expect of faculty in science.

On PhD students, he notes that many are now being told how many papers they should produce from the first day and that this is not conducive to proper learning and can damage the idea of a PhD which is to encourage independent learning and research. Publishing papers as a prerequisite to a degree is in effect producing a product, which Stewart expressed his distaste of as it can lead to a dilution of the scientific learning and a simplification of the science being produced. This leads to many 'career scientists' who work in science because they see it as a good career option rather than because they are passionate about science. Many job applications now ask, 'how many papers have you published rather than the actual process' which leads to many students doing a Master’s degree so they can apply for a particular job in the industry rather out of scientific curiosity.

Having worked in UCD for just over a decade, Dr Stewart has been highly involved with both faculty and students and seems to have a good understanding of UCD. He expressed a love of his research but also some suggestion that he would be open to more opportunities that facilitate teaching. His requests for UCD to provide some extra support for his students was disregarded which leads to concern that UCD is overlooking the concerns of lecturers as well as their students. As a university, these two groups of people should be of the utmost importance. One could wonder who UCD is catering to when it implements decisions. As Dr Stewart notes, “the same set of situations can elicit very different behaviours, but it is the behaviours that affect what people experience”.