Teacher of the Year Award for Michael Link, M.D. — energized by teaching ‘brilliant minds’

Michael Link, M.D. (MED ’90, NS ’96), Department of Neurologic Surgery, has spent 29 of his 53 years in Rochester, Minnesota. He joined the Mayo Clinic staff in Rochester in 1999 after serving on the staff at Mayo Clinic in Florida for two years. He says he loves teaching in one of the largest neurosurgery residencies in the country and is almost always accompanied by several residents and a fellow.That’s OK. He says teaching “brilliant minds” is energizing.

The 2018 Teacher of the Year award from the Mayo Fellows’ Association is his second in three years. He calls it the most prestigious award you can receive at Mayo Clinic.

What’s your teaching style?

We use the mentor-apprentice style, standing shoulder-to-shoulder during an operation. I tell the trainee everything I’m doing and why and what happens if we do it a different way.

Most teachers don’t have just one style. Something that works with one learner may not work with another. When someone doesn’t understand a concept, I stand back and evaluate how I can make it understandable. Sometimes that’s as simple as the learner seeing the same thing several times. Some people need extra time in the cadaver lab doing dissections. Some people need better reference or learning materials. I’ll direct them to go look at a particular book and see how a famous surgeon describes a procedure. Today we have such good video content online that there’s almost no operation you can’t see on YouTube.

I remember very well what it was like to be a resident 22 years ago. It’s not easy, and I hope the residents recognize that I’m on their side and am an advocate for them. I know this work is hard and demanding. Every day is challenging. I try to help foster work-life balance in our residents. I want them to see their children and partners.

Has your teaching style changed through the years?

Yes, I’ve become a better teacher as my confidence in my abilities increased.

Surgery is an exhausting profession. You have to conserve your energy for it. One of the facets of the profession to go first may be teaching. It may be difficult to maintain the same energy level and cognitive sharpness. A good physician won’t knowingly let patient care slip. I hope when my teaching starts to slip, the people around me will gently let me know.

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

The most obvious way to know is when someone who was struggling the week before is now clearly comfortable with a certain portion of an operation. That’s the real reward — when you know they’re getting it.

What’s rewarding about teaching?

It’s rewarding to see somebody begin to understand and execute the complex problems we encounter in neurosurgery. I see them progress from being tentative or unsure of the next step of an operation to doing exactly what I would do. That makes me feel like I’m passing on what I know in a worthwhile way.

I learn from the residents and fellows, too. When they ask questions, I’m forced to step back and explain the steps. They constantly ask why I do things a certain way. That makes me think about being more systematic in how I approach things. It’s good to hear different perspectives and energizing to have brilliant people around me. I can’t get bored.

How have students changed through the years?

The current generation is so tech savvy. They have all the known information in the world available at their fingertips. Back in the day, you’d ask the teacher a question, and he or she would tell you to look up the answer and report back the next day. Today other students pull up the answer on their electronic devices before their peer has even finished asking the question.

More information doesn’t necessarily make a better surgeon. People can be bombarded with information and find it difficult to sort out what’s important and what’s not. Ability to integrate 3-D anatomy, hand-eye coordination, patience and situational awareness are just as important as information.

Who were your teaching role models?

Dr. David Piepgras (NS ’74) taught me carotid endarterectomy. He and Dr. Fred Meyer (NS ’87) are both technically great surgeons and very patient. It was absolutely clear from the moment I met them as a resident that they were extraordinarily devoted to teaching. Everything was about teaching — the way they approached things, interacted on rounds and instructed in the operating room. They never missed an opportunity to have me learn something in every patient interaction and operation.

Dr. John Tew at the Unversity of Cincinnati was my fellowship director, and he as very committed to seeing me succeed.

There’s no question that if you want to take the best care of patients and have great colleagues, there’s no better place than Mayo Clinic.

What does the Teacher of the Year award mean to you?

It’s the most prestigious award you can win. There’s no greater honor. In this department, there are a lot of great teachers.

The first time I won, I was shocked and amazed. Receiving this award is extraordinarily motivating to be a better teacher.

Student comments:

“Dr. Link is, without exception, the most thoughtful, dedicated, brilliant and kind teacher on our staff.”

“Dr. Link commendably balances the needs of resident education while maintaining the highest level of excellence in patient care.”

“Dr. Link is a true mentor and an extremely strong advocate for resident learning and development in the OR, in the clinic, at the bedside in the skills lab and in our academic endeavors.”

“His refreshing humility and unparalleled work ethic are a testament to his method of teaching by example.”



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