Michael Awad, MD, PhD, FACS, is among a group of 50 surgical educators inducted into membership in the American College of Surgeons (ACS) Academy of Master Surgeon Educators this September at a Virtual Induction Ceremony. This is the third cohort of members inducted into the Academy.
Awad, who is Associate Professor of Minimally Invasive Surgery and Director of the Washington University Institute for Surgical Education (WISE) Center, was inducted as an Associate Member.
Awad is a distinguished educator whose experience in the field includes previously serving as Program Director for the General Surgery Residency and Associate Dean for Medical Student Education. Nationally he serves through leadership positions in the Society of American Gastrointestinal Endoscopic Surgeons (SAGES), the American Board of Surgery/SCORE, the Association of Surgical Education and the Association of Program Directors in Surgery.
Past Department of Surgery inductees to the Academy include Timothy Eberlein, MD, the Bixby Professor and Chairman of the Department of Surgery, Founding Member Mary Klingensmith, MD, the Mary Culver Distinguished Professor of Surgery and Vice President of the American Board of Surgery, and Gerald Andriole, MD, the Royce Distinguished Professor and Chief of Urologic Surgery.
Developed by the ACS Division of Education, the Academy recognizes surgeon educators who have devoted their careers to surgical education. The Academy’s mission is to play a leadership role in advancing the science and practice of education across all surgical specialties, promoting the highest achievements in the lifetimes of surgeons.
Awad, who established an ACS Accredited Education Institute (AEI) Simulation and Education Fellowship at the WISE Center, reflects on his career as a surgical educator in the following interview.
Why is teaching so important to you?
Teaching is something I’ve been passionate about for quite some time. I first became aware of my interest in teaching in college, when I was a teaching assistant for a biochemistry course. I used to have small group sessions with students and do some tutoring, and it was just really fun. I love seeing the light go off when someone who has been struggling to grasp a concept finally gets it. It’s so rewarding for them and for the teacher. I think it’s a concept we can all appreciate. As a teacher or a learner, we’ve all been there. I think college was when the teaching bug first bit me. Before I even knew for certain that I wanted to be a surgeon or, frankly, even a doctor, I knew that I enjoyed teaching and I wanted that to be part of my career in some shape or form.
As my career choices started to crystallize over the years—going to medical school, then surgical residency—that teaching bug that bit me was always still latched on, calling to me and making sure I fed that passion for education. During medical school at Brown University, I was again a teaching assistant. Some students preferred coming to the TA sessions rather than the professor’s lectures—he was a little on the dry side.
I realized that I wanted to improve the teaching for my peers and other students. I didn’t want to be someone who sat in the back of the class and complained when things were boring. I wanted to help effect change in education.
In college, I became interested in teaching. In medical school, I developed an interest in becoming an educator.
What is the difference between a teacher and an educator?
There’s a difference between a teacher and an educator. A teacher plays a critical role in delivering curriculum and helping students learn. An educator studies how to teach. An educator looks at curriculum through the scientific method, asking important questions about how people learn. What is the gap between where our learners are and where we want them to be? What are the objectives of our curriculum? How are we going to deliver those objectives? An educator studies that process with a rigorous approach.
I joined the curriculum committee in medical school and served on the AAMC Liaison Commission for Medical Education. I was looking for opportunities to learn about curricula across the country.
When did you know you wanted to focus on surgical education?
When I was in surgical residency, education wasn’t something we talked about openly in the surgical community. There was an old saying: “If you can’t operate, you teach.”
This began to change during my residency at Johns Hopkins.
I remember it very well: It was April of 2003, a few months prior to the start of my lab years. Julie Freischlag had just become the first female chair of the department. In surgery, which is an historically male-dominated field, this was a big deal. Dr. Freischlag was meeting with all of the faculty and residents, one by one, just to get to know them. When we met, she asked me what I was interested in. I told her I was doing research in surgical oncology, but I guess I kind of trusted her and saw an opening, and so I said: “I’m also interested in surgical education.”
Her eyes lit up.
She said, “Oh really? So am I!”
She gave me the chance to really focus my lab years on surgical education. I did a lot of the things our ACS-AEI simulation fellows are doing now: developing curricula, evaluation systems and simulation sessions. I helped in the duty hours transition that was coming up. When she tasked me with these things, my jaw hit the floor. When the chairwoman asks, you do what she says. But she didn’t have to twist my arm. This was something I was really interested in. And to have the chair’s support was like a blank check to make it happen.
Those years helped set the stage for me in many ways. It confirmed for me that education was my passion. It helped to show my commitment to surgical education. I’d like to think the things I did made a difference to the training of my co-residents. When I looked for my first job, it helped because Dr. Freischlag—a well-respected chairwoman of a surgical department—could vouch for me and speak to my work. It also solidified for me that when I look for my first job, surgical education should be a component.
Why did you come to Washington University?
When I looked at Washington University, Dr. Klingensmith and Dr. Eberlein saw the passion I brought as a resident, and wanted those things to happen here. They made me an associate residency program director, put me in charge of the curriculum and the infant simulation center at the time, before it was even called WISE. At the time, it was just a closet on the ninth floor of the Wohl building.
Not to be trite, but they say that if you do something you love, you never work a day in your life. With education, I feel that way. Washington University gave me the opportunity to focus on that in my career.
What always brings me back home is having those interactions with our learners. What I love is going to the operating room or clinic and having those moments with our students, residents and healthcare professionals, and seeing that light bulb go off. It’s such a rewarding moment that brings me back to the beginning and why I got into this in the first place.
What does induction to the Academy of Master Surgeon Educators mean to you personally and professionally?
I was very grateful to be nominated for the Academy by Drs. Eberlein and Klingensmith. Both are members of the Academy, and they truly are devoted to surgical education.
It is nice to see how far education has come in surgery. From at one time being that thing you didn’t talk about, education is now something you can pin your career on. You can develop a full-fledged career in surgical education.
My career advancements have all been based around my educational initiatives. I have been fortunate to receive federal, society and industry grant funding for research in surgical education throughout my career. It’s been an honor to receive Fellowship in the ACS and a SAGES Career Development Award. To be recognized in this way by a society that also values education and educators is a great honor.
What are you excited for in the future of surgical education?
I think that seeing education as a recognized discipline in surgery has created a critical mass of surgical educators who can initiate new waves of innovation and shift the paradigm of how we teach surgeons. Where it used to lag, surgery is now leading in education initiatives. It has a special challenge, because a large part of surgery is technical skills—what we do with our hands.
New ways of teaching with simulation excite me. The old way was to learn by osmosis: you put somebody in a hospital setting for five years and hope that at the other end they come out having figured it out. We can no longer afford to learn that way.
From “education by accident” to “education by intention” is what we do now. We are prospective about the way we teach. It is no longer acceptable to do a procedure for the first time on a living human being. That’s where simulation comes in. In the operating room, the focus has to be on the patient. In the simulation center, education is foremost. It is OK to make mistakes. It is OK to take your time. That role of simulation in education is very clear. I am excited to see how it will continue to further the training of future surgeons.
We can continue to grow and improve in every aspect of surgical education. Psychomotor skills are important, but we are also becoming more intentional in our training of cognitive skills, teamwork skills, affective skills and communication skills. All of these are critical to the success of future generations of surgeons.