The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
Faculty Feature: Dr. Gillian Sawyer-Price

Susanna Campbell ’23 interviewed High School Biology Teacher Gillian Sawyer-Price, who completed a Ph.D. in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Glasgow and taught pharmacology and anesthesiology at several European and American universities before coming to TASIS in 2011.

Dr. Gillian Sawyer-Price

Can you please describe your educational background and summarize your professional experiences prior to your arrival at TASIS?
I am a proud product of the Scottish state education system. I was born close to Glasgow and studied at the University of Glasgow, where I attained my degree in Veterinary Medicine. Thereafter, I worked as a vet for a number of years before returning to the University of Glasgow, where I completed my Ph.D. in Veterinary Medicine. I then went to work at the University of Edinburgh, where I completed a long residency in Veterinary Anesthesiology, ultimately becoming a Diplomate of the European College of Veterinary Anaesthetists. I worked as a Lecturer in Anaesthesia at the University of Edinburgh University, as an Oberärztin at the Tierspital of the University of Zurich, and as Professor of Pharmacology and Anesthesiology at Saint George's University in Grenada.

When you work as an academic in a vet school, you're really still very much a clinician. Veterinary schools are referral hospitals that have the facilities and specialized clinicians able to deal with complicated medical and surgical cases in many different species of animal. So if you have a horse with a strangulated intestine requiring emergency surgery, or a kitten with a congenital heart condition that requires cardiothoracic surgery, then these sorts of clinical cases are often managed at vet schools. Working as a lecturer at a vet school involves working as a full-time clinician, as well as delivering lectures, chasing research grants, and supervising undergraduate, Masters and Ph.D. students. 

In my Ph.D., I investigated aspects of the molecular neuropharmacology of central spinal pain transmission. As a clinician, I focussed more on the development and evaluation of scoring systems to help clinicians better evaluate and manage acute and chronic pain in different sorts of animals.

That is a very impressive and extensive background. How would you say that all of this research and education influenced your decision to become a high school teacher? What made you want to share your knowledge of biology with younger students?
When I moved to Switzerland with my family, I needed a job—I have always had a job of some description since I was 12 years old! Given that at that point I didn't speak Italian, I had two children under two years old, and my husband had a job that often took him away from home overnight, my options were limited. Having worked in higher education for many years, I hoped I could become a high school science teacher. So moving to the high school level seemed the most practical thing to do. 

My own mum was a high school teacher for children with learning difficulties. I feel very fortunate to have had access to a fantastic education, and I come from a country where I was brought up to believe that every child, regardless of their family background or financial situation, should have equal access to a great education. For humanity to survive, we need to build societies where every citizen is well-educated and scientifically literate. It's essential to help young people fall in love with science, understand it properly, and know how to apply it for the good. That is as noble an aim as it was to teach postgraduate medical students. It’s all very important.

That's a very good philosophy and kind of ties into my next question, which is about your approach to education. Is there anything else you'd like to add about your teaching philosophy?
The only other thing I would say is that if we're trying to get students to become independent learners, they probably have to be fascinated by and fall in love with the subject. If you don't love it, and don't find it fascinating or intriguing, then you're not going to want to study it. It's going to be hard work for you. It's easy to study things that are just fundamentally interesting. I'm lucky that my subject, biology, is the study of life, and life is fundamentally interesting and fundamentally important. 

We human beings are’ hooked in’ by good stories and engaging images. We love to hear good stories and we love to visualize things—that's how the human brain works. So when I'm doing my lessons, I do my best to integrate stories and dynamic videos or have hands-on classes because we know that that's how our brains best imprint and learn.

You have taught biology to all four high school grades, including IB Biology to juniors and seniors. What do you think is the biggest difference between teaching students at the start of their high school experience compared to at the end of it?
Well, in 9th grade we have to teach students how to be high school students. We've got to teach them that deadlines are real, help them learn how to be better organized, and help them learn how to be independent learners so that they’re able to take the materials we provide them with and run with them themselves. They can then use this material to develop their own knowledge and understanding. At the end of the day, that's what learning is all about. It's not someone who knows something telling you what they know—it's you as an individual realizing that not only do you know and understand that material, but you can also apply it usefully, also in novel situations.

What role does the Campus Science Center play in allowing you to deliver your students the best science experience possible?
I would particularly give note and thanks to our lab technician, Mr. Cicero, because we all teach many hours a day, so the only way we can deliver practical experiences to our students is if we've got a lab technician behind the scenes who is getting all of the equipment ready for us and making sure we have all the resources we need. He often makes sure that the devices we use in our labs have been calibrated in advance, and he cleans all of our dirty glassware in between. So I would say that the biggest resource we have in the Campus Science Center is Mr. Cicero, the lab technician. Without him, we couldn’t deliver the practical lessons the way we do. 

Why is STEM education so important in today's world?
Well, I could point to three ongoing existential threats to the continued existence of humanity: the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and the desperate global decline in biodiversity. Solutions to these crises can’t be achieved without STEM. I don't think I need to say any more!

We humans, one among 40-million-odd living species who inhabit this earth, are at risk of rendering ourselves as well as countless other species extinct within the next few centuries. We are in the process of making our beautiful planet uninhabitable not only for ourselves, but also for many of the other species we share this planet with. We need to learn how to not do this—and that involves better understanding biology and our role in nature.

Science at TASIS

You definitely do a good job of incorporating those sorts of references into your curriculum, so I think that's very impressive. What do you like most about teaching at TASIS specifically?
I like the students the most. I really like people. I find people fascinating. It may sound surprising, but being a vet is a very people-based job. You've got to help people properly understand what's wrong with their animals and how you are going to help them. So for me, the best part of my job is all the different students I get to meet every year. I am so thrilled when they come back to see me long after they have graduated from TASIS—whether they’ve become vets, doctors, scientists, artists, or whatever career they’ve chosen! So I often feel as if I've got two children of my own and then 75 others every year as part of my extended family. That's nice. 

I feel like your teaching outlook is very student-centered and that you definitely want to help the students as much as you can while also providing them an excellent education. If your students could have just one takeaway from your classes, whether they're IB students or just starting in ninth grade, what would you say that takeaway would be?
I would say be respectful, thankful, and in awe of every living thing you bump into, whether it is a plant, a human, or any other kind of animal. Have love and respect for the living world of which we are only a tiny part. As my fellow Scot John Muir said far better than I can, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

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