RSU "Lecturer of the Year 2018" – Ilze Štrumfa
This year, the Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) Annual Award in the category Lecturer of the Year was awarded to Ilze Štrumfa, a professor of the Department of Pathology of the Faculty of Medicine, who is considered by students to be one of the most empathetic and respected lecturers at RSU. Perhaps this is because she lives according to the philosophy of Imants Ziedonis: “Don’t trample a flower, don’t tread on other people’s souls, but walk close by, go around, stay close”…Working with students is Ilze Štrumfa’s love and lifestyle.
Candidates in this RSU Annual Award category are nominated and the award winner is chosen by the Student Union by collating electronically-submitted student opinions. This year an incredible number of candidates were proposed for this nomination – 64 RSU lecturers (45 lecturers in 2017).
Ilze Štrumfa graduated from the Medical Academy of Latvia (now RSU) with distinction. She worked as a doctor – a pathologist for 15 years. Since 2007 Ilze Štrumfa has been working at RSU. She began her career at the University as a lead researcher, currently she is not only professor of the Department of Pathology but also Head of the Department (since 2009).
She is an intelligent, enthusiastic, honest, good-natured and very emotional lecturer who believes that “we can all do more than we imagine”. Professor Ilze Štrumfa has the courage not to be afraid of unexpected questions from students, and she does not despair if one of the students manages to cheat in her examinations: “Students throughout history, it seems, have tried to fool their lecturers, while the lecturers have tried to catch them. This fun competition in guile is a part of academic life of sorts. However, in medicine one must stop playing these games: our colleagues must understand that death will not allow cheating. The moment a patient is admitted, the doctor has to take action, and sometimes there is not much time, therefore a doctor must take a serious approach towards their studies.”
Which faculties are you currently teaching in and which study years are you lecturing to? Which study courses do you teach?
Most of all I work with the demanding and wonderful Faculty of Medicine – I give lectures and conduct classes in the study course Pathology and Biopsy. In fact, in the Department of Pathology we try to avoid the specialisation of lecturers so that lecturers can maintain their broad horizons. I have also taught students in the programme Nursing Studies and in the Faculty of Dentistry. Each faculty has its own face. But even each group in the same study programme is different: there are activists and silent types, pragmatists and philosophers. Of course, every student is different, too. There are enthusiastic colleagues who are driven by an interest in medicine and who try to understand how and why a disease develops. Then it is important to develop a complete picture of its pathogenesis in response to all questions regarding “how” and “why”. There are future practitioners who want to hear what they will need in their work. One can also thank fate for such a student – this is the way the practical value of the course is polished. In this case it is important not to build castles in the air: such a student will not be a scientist, at least not at this moment, but they have excellent abilities as a doctor. Others only want to get through without racking their brains too much; however, no discounts on minimum medical requirements may be permitted; this should be clearly understood. And there are other young people who are eking out a meagre living all through the study years, they work and don’t always have enough time for study. They need support, not disapproval of what has not been done; sometimes these stories are bitter, but full of heart-warming energy. And there are geniuses with God-given talents.
What, in your opinion, should a lecturer be like, so that you can consider them a high-level professional?
A doer is characterised by his accomplishments, isn’t he? A lecturer should be judged by the students they have educated. In my opinion… a lecturer should strive to work in such a way that a student leaves the University wiser than when he came through the door of our Alma mater. Wisdom is a broad concept – it first includes knowledge and understanding, which form a single network in medicine, but this is not enough. We should also ignite the joy of an explorer in the student, a belief that their generation will solve the problems that are currently relevant in medicine worldwide. And the joy of life: humour is the most flavoursome spice in the feast of existence. Our students have a long life ahead of them, which will require a lot of strength, so they must be able to not only overcome difficulties, but also to smile in the face of adversity. I sometimes like to make students laugh in my lectures.
If we want a student to be smarter, it requires a lot of work and each part of the puzzle should be in its correct position: topic – teaching material – discussion – atmosphere. The topic should be current and interesting, so that the student is excited to learn but also for the knowledge gained to be useful in further clinical courses as the foundation of aetiology and pathogenesis which the structure of symptoms and therapy may be built on. Systematic teaching materials should be developed, with the right amount of information; neither too little nor too much, and the latter is the most difficult thing. The lecturer must first present information in a logical way in order to be able to expect logical arguments from the student. It is not enough to present the information by merely “cramming” a file or a book, because then the facts are in your head without full understanding of the topic. It is therefore necessary to promote discussion in classes that may be initiated by a test, the answers to which are discussed; in the form of a case study; an interactive digital image or a provocative question asked by a lecturer or a student – it is important to promote a lively brainstorm session. By discussing a topic, it comes to life; questions that had not come up previously are cleared up, the connection is made with previously learned topics and then the knowledge is retained in one’s memory.
If a student is taught, he learns; however the lecturer must devote a lot of time, energy and common sense. Medical education should be a lifestyle which also includes love.
Vidzeme. Photos and photomontage by Ilze Štrumfa. "Travel is one of my hobbies," says Professor Ilze Štrumfa
Who are the teachers in your life?
Albert Schweitzer’s principle “respect for life”, combined with his excellent pragmatism. In order to treat patients in Lambaréné, located in the jungles of Gabon, in the middle of nowhere in Africa, you not only need to have a sophisticated philosophy but also a clear head, skilled hands and tenacity.
Mother Teresa: not only her selfless love, but also practical diligence and stamina: "Yesterday has passed. Tomorrow has not arrived. We only have today. Let’s start now!”
Imants Ziedonis’ perceptive, vigorous enjoyment of life: from the lightness of the butterfly, the rush of the rapids and candlelight to the oaks of Latvia which we can release only ourselves and ‘Tutepatās’ (You, right here) to “Don’t trample a flower, don’t tread on other people’s souls, but walk close by, go round, stay close”.
The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe: starting from colitis expressed through a doctor’s quirky harsh ironic humour to the sun-drenched air and departure that is so easy. You can endure anything, including a cholera epidemic, if you do not forget to live, to talk to a dwarf, to wonder about life and see its beauty. Grey Seas Under by Farley Mowat about the team of the Atlantic salvage tug Foundation Franklin; Endurance by Alfred Lansing about the expedition to the Antarctic led by Shackleton and the crossing of the stormy Drake Passage (the Southern Ocean!) by boat – I read both of these books as a testimony to the tenacity of the human spirit which is proven through one’s actions. We can all do much more than we imagine. And – there is no book that is wiser than the Bible.
Does a lecturer need to know everything? Do you fear the moment when you will not know what to reply to a student?
The more you know, the more you encounter the unknown and the more clearly you realise the limits of your knowledge. A lecturer can never know everything, and they must come to this realisation themselves – the sooner, the better: not to become arrogant. When people are young, they are afraid of this simple truth – really, what shall I do if a student asks SOMETHING that I don’t know? As we get older, these questions are perceived as a blessing. And they do ask! A medical student looks at the pathogenesis of illnesses in a different way to a clinician – a student is, after all, seeing a simple appendicitis or breast cancer for the first time. Students’ questions are more theoretical, they are more in-depth and broader than the general view of a practitioner.
A new generation of lecturers has been educated in the Department of Pathology – wonderful, knowledgeable, quick-witted, intelligent and responsible young people, our graduates. This too is a new burden of responsibility: the ability to share the courage not to be afraid of unexpected questions and be joyful about them.
Are you a demanding lecturer?
I first try to be demanding of myself. At the Winter School, organised by the RSU Centre for Educational Growth, visiting lecturer Matyas Szabo (Central European University) raised an interesting aspect, namely, the so-called ‘invisible curriculum’ that lives in conjunction with the documented study programme, i.e. those aspects that we teach our students by our own life example.
However, tests and colloquia are an integral part of classes in the Department of Pathology. It disciplines and eliminates fear. You cannot be afraid of a standard thing! At the end of the semester, when students are used to knowledge testing, groups of students often ask to cancel assessment with grades on the days when they have a colloquium in other study courses, but request that they be given a test so that they can test themselves and not lose the opportunity to discuss the test questions. So that’s what we do.
In my opinion, a student, like any other person, wants to savour the taste of one’s accomplished work, a notable achievement and a hard-won victory. They should not be denied this.
Costa Rica. Photos and photomontage by Ilze Štrumfa. "It is beautiful to see that the world really is round!" acknowledges Professor Ilze Štrumfa
What do you think are the most important human qualities?
Honesty, wisdom and fortitude.
What is your attitude towards cheating?
Throughout the ages, students seem to have tried to fool their lecturers, whereas the lecturers have tried to catch them. This fun competition in guile is a part of academic life of sorts so I don’t despair if students cheat. However, in medicine one must stop these games: our colleagues must understand that death will not allow cheating. The moment a patient is admitted, the doctor has to take action, and sometimes there is not much time, therefore a doctor must take a serious approach towards their studies – so they can understand the topic thoroughly, not just for the exam. If a student is well-informed about the seriousness of life, they understand and learn. Then cheating really becomes a joke.
We, of course, have developed rules and methods to make academic life more honest. Otherwise, permissiveness and indifference would encourage students to look for the easiest way. That’s the nature of things.
Please describe a RSU student!
The elite. A lecturer has a huge responsibility to work with these young people, because their potential is so high – both in terms of brain capacity and from an ethical standpoint.
What is the most important thing when working with young people?
To stay young even when you are grey as a weathered rock, i.e., to preserve youthful thinking, honesty and goodness. I am always amazed by the purity of heart of the students. Despite their minor misdemeanours, our young people are basically very honest and positive. I try help them maintain this attitude and also learn from them.
What do you expect from a student during their studies?
An interest and a logical, lively train of thought. Facts can be taught only if a student really wants to know and to understand.
New Zealand. Photos and photomontage by Ilze Štrumfa.
What are your memories of your studies at the Medical Academy of Latvia?
A sense of surprise after each spring examination period: ah, the world is still here! And it’s already green! And the linden trees smell like an Ode to Summer. Wow!
We studied just like current students do, sweating over assignments. Some courses were logical enough, others were more difficult. There were professors whom we virtually worshipped. I remember the highly-structured lectures in cardiology, which were brilliantly delivered by Jūlijs Anšelevičs. Professor Jānis Gardovskis was a god to us – his lectures, operations… I doubt that we knew enough to really understand the point of this or another operation, but it was important to see the legend. This is also the invisible curriculum – the radiance of the personality. We worked in hospitals as hospital orderlies or nurses; the bureaucratic burden was not so heavy then. I was lucky to have an outstanding, busy and practical placement at Smiltene hospital.
During my medical residence I was lucky again – at the beginning I was awarded the Kristaps Keggi scholarship for several months’ studies in the United States. It may seem that a few months are not much, but the way of thinking I learned there laid the foundation for my further professional life. I returned home with three suitcases full of photocopies (at that time the internet was not available in Latvia at all, and only Soviet-era medical literature was available here). Naturally, the border guards paid attention to the young girl who was hauling three apparently heavy bags, and they started to search me thoroughly. After checking the second bag they were deeply disappointed – all they found was papers. Well, yes… We had a laugh together: the officials were very polite and considerate.
What has changed at the University since you were a student and what hasn’t changed?
Technology. When I was studying, lecture notes were written in notebooks and microscope images were drawn by hand. Now the e-study environment, digital pathology and annotated printouts greatly facilitate and accelerate our work. Drawings have long been replaced by image-based microphotographs, thus saving a lot of time and … coloured pencils. However, the road always leads further. A few years ago the Department of Pathology became a pioneer in digital pathology in Latvia. Together with Ervīns Vasko, an assistant in our Department, we developed the first of such files in cooperation with our foreign colleagues and RSU IT specialists. Technological growth is exciting both in terms of achievements and as a breath of progress which stimulates further action.
As tools and technologies improve, the basics remain. It seems to me that we as people don’t change so quickly, and we – both I as well as my students – are the same young people, who have fallen in love with medicine.
It is important to remember that the purpose and nature of medicine – to help the person who is ill – has not changed since the times of Hippocrates and Avicenna. To help. To cure or to relieve the situation, but still help, not to get by with a formally legitimate coldness.
An analogous motif from The Little Prince is also at the core of a reasonable society “There is only one true luxury – the richness of human relationships”. Respect for the individual, the individual as the core value of RSU, which Rector Magnificus Professor Aigars Pētersons has promoted as a fundamental life principle at RSU; these are not only well-sounding words, but an underlying daily approach – to develop a pleasant environment for both students and teaching staff in order to bring out the best in every person. "Drudgery cannot exist if you work with a hoe. Drudgery exists where the strokes made by the hoe are senseless; where work does not unite a worker with the rest of the world”. The work of a slave or a prisoner is not productive, so it is not only ethical but also practical to create a humane, sincere, free and creative environment. This is what we strive to create and maintain in the Department of Pathology.
Costa Rica. Photo and photomontage by Ilze Štrumfa.
What does recognition by the students – Lecturer of the Year – mean to you?
Fulfilment in life. And this is not exaggerated. You see, I have always loved our Rīga Stradiņš University, the wonderful Department of Pathology team and my work – the interesting path of a seeker. However, the students’ say has made this work – which is done with love – meaningful.
Summary of electronic students’ questionnaires about Professor Ilze Štrumfa
A never-ending enthusiasm in her work with students, an interest in educating the younger generation, great capacity for hard work and empathy. The study course is well-organised, up-to-date and it is constantly updated with the latest information and data. Students have also noticed the skill of the lecturer to use her sense of humour in developing colloquia questions, her wishes and flowers at the end of each lecture.