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Teaching is a learning process for award-winning professor Yasmmyn Salinas

June 16, 2022
by Fran Fried

Yasmmyn Salinas, PhD ’19, has been there and done that.

An assistant professor in the Department of Chronic Disease Epidemiology, Salinas recently completed her third year on the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) faculty, where she teaches Principles of Epidemiology II and Advanced Applied Analytic Methods in Epidemiology (AAMIE). A former YSPH student herself, she brings a unique perspective to the job. As a student, she once sat in the same classrooms in which she now teaches. She sat through lectures in Winslow Auditorium, took copious notes, raised questions, did the homework and dealt with many of the same anxieties her students now face.

In her new role, Salinas has discovered that teaching classes large and small is a learning process as well – especially when you throw in a pandemic for good measure that disrupts everything you thought you knew about being an instructor. That adaptability, combined with her belief in being transparent, her use of student feedback and her own personal experiences as a student, earned her the YSPH 2021 Distinguished Teacher Award.

Some of the students who selected Salinas for the award cited her “passion for research, thoughtfully prepared course and instruction materials, and detailed yet succinct delivery of the material.” They also praised her “incredible passion” for teaching.

“I’ve been blessed to have had a really great group of students, so that’s made it easier,” said Salinas, who earned a Bachelor of Science degree at YSPH in 2010 and an MPH degree in 2014.

“I think what resonates with my students is that they know I’ve been there, they know that I’ve taken all these classes and that I’m bringing that experience with me into the classroom,” she said. “I think establishing that rapport, from the beginning, has been very valuable.

Salinas, a former McDougal Graduate Teaching Fellow, did her doctoral training in Associate Professor Andrew DeWan’s lab at YSPH. As a genetic epidemiologist, her research focuses on the intergenerational transmission of obesity and its comorbidities. Her long-term goals are to advance our understanding of obesity etiology and to translate epidemiologic evidence into interventions that manage and prevent obesity.

In the classroom, Salinas is up-front and transparent with her students about what will be expected of them and why. She also surveys her students, so she has a better understanding of their knowledge base when they enroll in one of her courses. “I want to see what they’re familiar with so that I can meet them where they are,” she said.

I’ve been blessed to have had a really great group of students,

Yasmmyn Salinas

When Salinas sees a student struggling to grasp a concept, she will provide additional comments on their work, speak to them one-to-one and encourage them to meet with her during office hours. “Giving that individualized support is a lot easier when you have 20 to 25 students as we do in Advanced AAMIE,” she said. “It is a little more challenging for me to do that personally with my 85 students in Epi 2.”

Salinas relies heavily on Poll Everywhere classroom technology when teaching her larger Epidemiology II classes. She will ask her students questions to gauge how they’re progressing, which helps her set the pace of her class.

“I try to make it as interactive as possible,” she said. “I do a lot of Poll Everywhere because it’s a big lecture class. It allows me to know, in the moment, if they understand big concepts from the lecture. They love it, and I love it, too.”

“I incorporate pre- and post-questions to try to gauge their prior knowledge coming into a lecture,” Salinas explained. “We begin with a poll question, do the lecture, and then I ask the same question again. If they knew the answer based on their Epi 1 knowledge, then great. If not, then the goal is for the answers to change in a favorable way.”

Student polling has helped Salinas become much more conscientious about the pace of her instruction. “I don’t care if I finish the lesson on time every time, I just slow down,” she said. “These types of questions are allowing me to see students learning in real-time, which is phenomenal.”

The pandemic broke worldwide midway through her second semester as a professor. Salinas said her Advanced AAMIE class adapted more easily since she had already built a rapport with those students. Teaching a large Epidemiology II class was much more difficult. Finding success took a lot of trial and error, student feedback and overcoming the “expert blind spot” that comes with knowing the material inside-out.

“Epi 2 has been in my life since 2013, first as a student, then as a TA, and now as the professor,” she said. “I’ve internalized the material. It all makes sense to me. So sometimes it is easy to forget what it was like to learn the material in the first place. Taking feedback from previous years, I have re-evaluated what’s in my syllabus, cut out some lectures, and restructured some lessons, with the goal of giving more time to explain certain concepts and for students to ask more questions.”

Submitted by Colin Poitras on June 16, 2022