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Teacher of the Year Award for Darlene Nelson, M.D. – ‘learning is fun’

Darlene Nelson, M.D. (I ’08, CMR ’09, THDCC ’12), Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Department of Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, is the first woman in the division to receive a Teacher of the Year Award from the Mayo Fellows’ Association.

“When I was training, the division had very few women —about one per class of fellows,” says Dr. Nelson, associate program director for the Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Fellowship Program. “In the current fellowship group, 19 out of 35. When I joined the staff in 2012, there were six women in the department at the time out of 50 physicians. Women now number more than 15 in the division. This specialty has had a big uptick in women in the last 20 years.

“I didn’t consider the lack of women in the specialty when I chose it. Someone gave me advice to go into what excites you to get out of bed in the morning. I love pulmonary and critical care medicine — taking care of the sickest of the sick patients in the ICU and performing complex procedures in pulmonary medicine. My schedule has a lot of variety from week to week, which enhances my job satisfaction. Physicians in this specialty are generally very happy. I like being around people who like what they do, and I truly enjoy what I do.”

“I love seeing the light bulb click on when the student makes the connection, ‘gets it’ and starts applying what they’ve learned.”

Darlene Nelson, M.D., receives a Teacher of the Year award from resident Taylor Teague, M.D. (THDC ’21).

What’s your teaching style?

My goal is to be learner-centric. I enjoy using multiple teaching styles to meet the learner where they are. That may involve one-on-one learning or in small groups with other residents and fellows. In every session in the ICU, I ask trainees what they want to learn during the week and how I can help them. Our learners are very smart, and they often know what they know and don’t know.

I like to make sure my teaching is hands-on and practical. I bring trainees to the bedside and show the how mechanical ventilators or chest tubes work. It’s important for students to put their hands on the equipment and understand how to use it.

What’s most rewarding about teaching?

I love seeing the light bulb click on when the student makes the connection, “gets it” and starts applying what they’ve learned. It’s rewarding when I teach a learner and then I see them teaching someone else the same thing later on.

What’s most challenging about teaching?

The constant battle for time in a busy practice is most challenging. I try to make sure time with learners doesn’t get squeezed out and we have adequate time for teaching moments.

Who are your teaching role models?

My favorite instructors were those who had a lot of patience, allowed me to ask questions and were encouraging.

Kannan Ramar, M.B.B.S., M.D. (THDCC ’06), our fellowship program director, has an incredible way of inviting questions. He listens patiently and helps learners think through what the next step should be. It’s all done in a welcoming manner that makes people feel supported. He has taught me a lot in the last six years.

How do you know when you’ve done a good job teaching?

I look to see if clinical learners enjoy what they’re doing. Learning is fun. If I’m doing well at teaching and creating a positive learning environment, the residents and fellows enjoy what they’re doing and the team should be cohesive. If the team is dysfunctional and people are withdrawn, I need to examine how to change the environment to more conducive to learning.

How do you address students who are struggling?

When I see struggling students, I try to get to know them and ask how I can facilitate moving to the next step. That involves engaging with them, listening, determining how they learn best and helping them work through whatever they’re struggling with.

As chief medical resident in 2008-2009, I met with struggling residents to help develop action plans for them. Several of them have gone on to have very productive careers at Mayo Clinic. You would never know they struggled at one point and had to meet regularly with the chief resident. Seeing them succeed is one of the most rewarding parts of teaching.

Did you struggle during your education and training?

I had my first child during fellowship. Figuring out how strike a balance between family and work was the biggest challenge during my training. I hadn’t had that new obligation before, so work always won the tug of war. Once I had a family, my home life sometimes had to win the tug of war. That involved learning when to say yes and no to work during the last two years of my fellowship.

Most female trainees in our program who decide to have babies during fellowship come to my office to talk about that struggle. I feel privileged to share my experience with them and encourage them that it can be done.

How does it feel to receive a Teacher of the Year award?

I’m honored and thankful. Our division has a lot of deserving, outstanding educators, and I feel privileged to have been chosen for this award.


Trainee comments

  • “Dr. Nelson is perhaps my favorite person to work with. She is a wonderful teacher and great role model.”
  •  “Dr. Nelson is a wonderful advocate for patients and trainees alike. I had a particularly memorable experience working with her. A patient she had followed in the primary care clinic during her residency came to the bronchoscopy suite, where Dr. Nelson was supervising procedures. The patient was overwhelmed and overjoyed to see her again. It was clear they had a strong personal connection. I was just a bystander during this interaction, but it was touching and reminded me what a privilege it is to be involved in patient care.”


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