August 16, 2021

Berger finds rewarding path in medical education

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Berger Stephanie2018 webIf you ask Stephanie Berger, M.D., about the growth opportunities available for educators at UAB, she would say five words: Seek and you shall find.

Her meaning comes clear when you look at a list of Berger's roles and accomplishments: she's the co-director of the pediatrics clerkship on the Birmingham campus, lead mentor for the Hirschowitz Learning Community, and co-director of the Patient, Doctor, and Society course for incoming MS1s. She was honored in 2018 as the junior faculty winner of the Dean's Excellence Award for Teaching and won Argus Awards in 2019 for best clinical educator Birmingham campus and in 2020 for best career mentor.

That's not necessarily the career path she imagined when she joined the UAB faculty in 2009. When she joined the Division of Pediatric Hospital Medicine after her residency at UAB, her role was purely clinical.

But Berger, now an associate professor of Pediatrics, quickly jumped into the clinician-educator role because medical students and residents are important parts of the care team.

"I was pretty surprised how much I enjoyed teaching and began to seek out more teaching opportunities at UAB."

Finding experiences in teaching

Berger was inspired to specialize in pediatrics by her father.

"My dad was a pediatrician, so I entered medical school with that bias, but after doing my clinical rotations during my third year, I knew that pediatrics was my field," she said. "It is hard to find a patient more resilient than a child."

Berger earned her medical degree at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and came to Birmingham to complete her pediatrics residency at UAB and Children's of Alabama.

"When I was looking for a residency program, I wanted one that was affiliated with a medical school rather than a community program because I wanted the challenge and rigor that academic programs are known for," she said. "During residency, I realized my passion for pediatric hospital medicine."

She joined the Division of Pediatric Hospital Medicine as a faculty member in 2009 and, from there, discovered an affinity for teaching medical students and started looking for more opportunities.

"I taught in Introduction to Clinical Medicine (ICM) for a few years and really loved getting to know a small group of students in the pre-clinical stage," she said.

"Leadership changes in our clerkship occurred in 2015," she continued. "Michele Nichols, my former pediatric program director and lifelong sponsor, supported me into the role of assistant director of the pediatric clerkship."

In this new leadership role, she looked for ways to better engage students, including transitioning the curriculum from lectures to more interactive sessions. She also implemented a weekly app quiz, testing students on developmental milestones.

"I think I dabble in technology but have a good perspective on when it is too much.”

 "As a mom of two and a pediatric educator, I share a lot of my personal life with my students," she said. "I tell my kids that they are teaching my students—which they love!"

The same year, she saw a call for faculty mentors to lead in the then-new Learning Communities (LC) program. The idea for the program resonated with her, so she applied and was named a mentor for Hirschowitz LC.

"Reading about the Learning Communities program reminded me of what I liked about ICM, but really touched on what I felt I lacked in my own medical education," she said. "Medical school and a medical career are so much more than the science, and the LC program helps students to see the bigger, more important picture. Self-care just wasn't in our vocabulary when I was a student, and the fact that many of our students are keenly aware of its importance for career/life satisfaction is incredible."

Becoming an LC mentor allowed Berger to continue developing relationships with medical students in different stages of their coursework and talk with them about that bigger picture of being a physician. When asked her favorite part of working with medical students, her incredulous response—"One thing?!?  Impossible to answer"— exemplifies her passion for teaching.

"UAB has such incredible students. They are smart, curious, and passionate, and my involvement with medical education allows me to get to know them personally," she said. "This is the best part."

Berger now has the opportunity to connect with students in their first weeks of medical school. She and Caroline Harada, M.D., whom Berger said she got to know from her work in the LC program, teamed up in 2019 to reshape the Patient, Doctor, and Society course to give it a community relevance and an active-learning focus as the course co-directors.

When asked if she has any tips for educators who are trying to better engage medical students, her response typifies her personalized approach to medical education: “Get to know the students personally and empower them as the budding health care professionals that they are.”