Earlanda Williams, Ph.D., course director in the School of Medicine’s Department of Cellular and Structural Biology, instructs dental and health professions students about the structure of the human body.

Finding the light-bulb moments

Monday, March 2, 2015by Sherrie Voss Matthews

Earlanda Williams, Ph.D., loves her days instructing dental and health professions students about the structure of the human body. As a college student, Dr. Williams never dreamed she would become an award-winning educator.

Earlanda Williams, Ph.D., had a challenge. Just as she became a brand-new course director in the School of Medicine’s Department of Cellular and Structural Biology, it was decided the physician assistant anatomy program should be revamped.

Dr. Williams and Charlene Moore, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology, team-taught the course. Moving away from the traditional format of students being divided into separate groups, with each group working with one cadaver, they decided upon a new template that included live interaction to help with learning.

Enter the learning stations: Students were placed in groups and given tasks to discover 10 items at each station. Students could help each other. They could examine more than one cadaver and see a variety of possible structures within the human body.

Group tests were mixed with individual exams – and the new teaching method became a hit with the students.

“Each of them brought something to the table,” Dr. Williams said. “The communication, the camaraderie, it was great. The students loved it, despite the fact that it was time consuming and took more work.”

Dr. Williams, a 2014 Presidential Teaching Excellence Award recipient, was inducted into the Academy of Master Teachers in November 2014. Honored for her open style and excellent teaching ability, today she teaches anatomy to students from both the School of Dentistry and School of Health Professions. As a college student, she never dreamed she would have so much fun helping students learn.

“I felt like this was home.”

Dr. Williams, a native of Flatonia, Texas, attended Texas State University on a basketball scholarship. She knew she wanted to do something with the sciences – maybe medicine – and so she went the route of pre-med.

She worked as a research assistant in the lab of Ron Walter, Ph.D., at Texas State and discovered she had a passion for research. Dr. Walter encouraged her to make a career of it, but Williams was still entertaining lingering aspirations to attend medical school.

“He encouraged me to explore both medicine and research, but, after a few short months shadowing in a doctor’s office, I knew it wasn’t for me,” she said. “I ditched the medical school plan.”

Dr. Ron Walter arranged for her to tour the UT Health Science Center San Antonio through his wife, Christi Walter, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Cellular and Structural Biology.

“I felt like this was home,” Dr. Williams said. “I realized I wasn’t going to be another number in a big program.”

Love of anatomy

Dr. Williams fell in love with anatomy when she took it as a graduate-level elective. She worked with her research mentor, Ellen Kraig, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology, to find a way to fit such an intensive course in her schedule. Then they developed a schedule that allowed her to be an anatomy teaching assistant. As long-time professors began to retire, Dr. Williams thought teaching anatomy might be her calling.

Long-time professor Frank Weaker, Ph.D., apprenticed her to teach gross anatomy. Two years later, when the School of Health Professions asked for an anatomy course director, Dr. Williams took a leap:  “Suddenly, I was the course director. It was scary, or at least it was for me. I would not have changed the opportunity for all the world.”

Translate what we teach to what we see

Dr. Williams loves the moment in which students make the connection from theory to practice.

“You hear a lecture, but when you see it in the human body, it’s like a light bulb goes off. I love sharing that with the students,” she said.

Students can see the complexity of the human body through dissection. As each layer is peeled back, they can visualize how parts are interconnected, how the body really works, and how there is a diversity in how our parts – organs, muscles, ligaments and bones – all fit together.

Dr. Williams uses those moments to move her students closer to a more complete understanding of the human body.

“I think that is why I wanted to get into teaching. There was a fear placed within me by my mentors: Are you going to get bored? But, you learn something new as you spend time in the lab. You watch students grow. You see anomalies and variations among the cadavers. It is always new, always changing.”