Teacher of the Year award for Elson So, M.D. — ‘a role model for all of us’

Elson So, M.D. (N ’91), Division of Epilepsy, Department of Neurology, has been on staff at Mayo Clinic since 1991. He was on staff at a medical facility in Wisconsin, when the Department of Neurology chair at Mayo Clinic asked if Dr. So wanted to interview for a position. The two men didn’t know each other. Dr. So presumes Jasper Daube, M.D. (NPHY ’70, Emeriti Staff), knew of his work.

After his second visit to Mayo Clinic, Dr. So wavered in his decision. His best friend suggested he think about it for another year. Dr. So decided to move to Mayo Clinic despite that advice.

“I’m glad I did,” he says. “Sometimes you make a turn in life and later think about how different things would have been if you hadn’t taken that turn. I’ve had a number of family members whose lives have been saved at Mayo Clinic. In more ways than one, my story might have been very different if I hadn’t come here.”

The lives of Dr. So’s trainees might have been very different, too. Students describe him as amazing, loving, humble, approachable, gentle, kind and brilliant. And Dr. So describes this award as one of the most meaningful things to come to him.

“I was so surprised to receive the award — I had a little tachycardia when I got the news!”

What’s your teaching style?

I like to ask first what the trainees are thinking about the case instead of querying them. I prefer to ask their opinion without making them feel as if I’m testing their level of knowledge. I need to know the extent of their core knowledge about a topic.

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

I’ve been teaching for many years. Receiving this award is the first time I’ve known I’m doing a good job!

What’s most rewarding about teaching?

It’s a learning environment, not just a teaching environment. I learn as much in teaching as the people I intend to teach. Trainees often think of things I didn’t think of. Additionally, when I prepare teaching materials and update my talks, I learn a lot.

In a care environment, you don’t withhold information from another physician. This shouldn’t be a competitive environment. We work together inside and outside the institution. Knowledge is even more valid once it’s shared.

I’ve had the good fortune to have good mentors and teachers ever since I was young — some in my family and some in schools and colleges. I’ve always thought teaching is very important in a society. It’s my way of giving back.

What’s most challenging in teaching?

It can be challenging to impart a sense of responsibility to the patient regardless of the condition of the patient or care environment. It’s an ethics issue that often isn’t touched on very much during training.

Understanding where the patient is coming from and the reasons behind their behavior and decisions isn’t something you can learn by Googling it. It’s not straightforward medical knowledge. It requires time with the patient and understanding about factors that interfere with patient care.

How do you handle a struggling learner?

It has to be in a one-on-one environment to allow for a discussion about what resources I can provide to support the student. I encourage them to be open.

In the student comments, you were described as having a loving attitude. How does it feel to hear that?

I wasn’t able to be at the Teacher of the Year award ceremony; I was traveling for work. I returned to find that a colleague had put a copy of the program on my desk. I read the comments. Then I read them again. I was very touched. I’m glad to know that what I’m doing is perceived as more than just teaching.

Who are your teaching role models?

Jasper Daube, M.D. (NPHY ’70, Emeriti Staff), my former department chair, was a very good teacher. Another former chair, Robert Brown, M.D. (MED ’87, N ’92, current chair, Division of Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases), is an excellent teacher whose teaching style and demeanor I have learned.

Donald Klass, M.D. (NPSY ’58, Emeriti Staff), also is an excellent teacher. He’s well-known for his teaching abilities.

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

It’s one of the most heartfelt recognitions I’ve ever received and one of the most meaningful things that has come to me. I was so surprised to receive the award — I had a little tachycardia when I got the news! It’s very humbling. The award means a lot to me and my wife.


Trainee comments

  • “Dr. So is an amazing teacher. His clinical and academic acumen are unparalleled. But you wouldn’t know that by the way he carries himself. He demonstrates a loving, humble attitude in all aspects of his work. This combination of knowledge and approachability make him a wonderful teacher.”
  • “We admire and respect him for his gentle nature.”
  • “His commitment to teaching is outstanding. Since my residency, he has been my go-to person for any question about epilepsy. Even when I was away at another institution, he promptly answered my emails and shared his experience.”
  • “Dr. So is on top of the most recent articles and evidence and loves to share that with us. For him, knowledge isn’t valid unless it’s shared. He consistently displays the values of a great leader and mentor. His kindness is widely recognized.”
  • “I’ve heard countless residents and fellows express gratitude for his support and teaching style. He is a role model for all of us, and he inspires us with his brilliance.”

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