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Q&A with USC PhD student Leslie Berntsen

Leslie poses with her students
Leslie poses with her students
Leslie Berntsen, a USC PhD candidate specializing in brain and cognitive science in the Department of Psychology, won the 2016 Wilbert J. McKeachie Teaching Excellence Award! She’s about to start her fourth year teaching a class called Psychological Science & Society to high school students enrolled in USC Summer Programs. She’s also serving her second year as the Chair of the CET Teaching Assistant Fellows (a group of graduate students who facilitate trainings and organize programs to help TAs become the best teachers they can be). Last summer, Leslie and a couple of friends helped develop the university’s first peer outreach program dedicated to sexual and gender-based violence and, this past year, she joined the Campus Climate Coalition and served on the Provost’s Diversity Task Force Advisory Board.


Please talk to us a little bit about the 2016 Wilbert J. McKeachie Teaching Excellence Award?

This is awarded by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (Division 2 of the American Psychological Association) to a single graduate student every year. I certainly don’t teach for the recognition, but I have to say that it does mean a lot to receive this award. I’ve always taught for a very particular reason, and that’s so my students can use what they’ve learned about the social and brain sciences to go out and make the world a better place. Over the years, this approach has been met with varying levels of enthusiasm, so it gives me so much hope to know that other people can see value in what I’m doing.

Did you hold any Fellowships while you were at USC, if so, how did that help you succeed in your studies and in your career?

I was awarded a Provost’s Mentored Teaching Fellowship (PMTF) this past year, which was a great opportunity to design and teach my own undergraduate course named The Frontal Lobe: From Function to Philosophy. I know that the PMTF program has been a long time in the making and I’m so glad it finally got off the ground this year. Writing a syllabus from scratch and seeing the class all the way through to the last day of the semester has been an invaluable and enlightening experience and I just wish more people could get an opportunity like that before teaching for the first time.

What kind of advice would you give PhD students at USC so that they can be successful in their educational endeavors?

Find something about the PhD experience that you love, something that literally gets you out of bed in the morning, and just pour your heart and soul into it. That’s obviously going to mean different things for different people, but, at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to live your life, so you might as well do something that makes you genuinely happy. Plus, it’s a lot easier to keep yourself motivated during those less enjoyable moments knowing that you have something else to look forward to.

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Put yourself out there and take as many risks as you can: submit a conference abstract for a talk instead of a poster, nominate yourself for that national award, apply for that fellowship or job you don’t think you’re qualified for, and so on. You’re bound to hear a disappointing “no” (or several) along the way, but you’ll never hear a “yes” unless you actually try. So, whenever a potential opportunity or something comes up, let other people be the ones to tell you “no” instead of doing it to yourself.” – Leslie Berntsen