Dr. Joe Rubin is the winner of this year's USask Provost’s College Award for Outstanding Teaching.

Rubin’s creative teaching goes far beyond ‘bugs and drugs’

Dr. Joe Rubin (DVM, PhD) is driven by a need to instill not just an understanding of veterinary microbiology, but a love of the subject in his veterinary students at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

By Jeanette Neufeld

Rubin, a veterinary microbiologist and an associate professor in the WCVM’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology, says many of his students aren’t always excited to begin learning about the subject — they would much rather be working with animals.

However, he finds success when students begin to understand how the foundational principles of his discipline will connect to their future veterinary career.

That innovative approach to teaching has earned Rubin the University of Saskatchewan (USask) Provost’s College Award for Outstanding Teaching. The annual awards, which recognize teaching excellence, are presented to one nominee from each college or school at USask that teaches undergraduate students.

“Dr. Rubin’s approach is to focus on putting the information in context and making it clear how infectious disease knowledge is critically important for clinicians. Coupled with his obvious enthusiasm and passion for infectious disease microbiology, this strategy has proven very effective,” wrote Dr. Janet Hill (PhD), head of the Department of Veterinary Microbiology, in her nomination letter.

“He encourages and leads his students to go beyond the approach of memorizing lists of ‘bugs and drugs,’ and instead, shows them how to apply their knowledge in identifying infectious disease problems, creating a list of differential diagnoses, and developing diagnostic plans to gather evidence to inform treatment strategies.”

Rubin grew up in Saskatoon, Sask., and has spent most of his career at the WCVM. He graduated from the college’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program in 2007, completed his PhD degree in 2011 and then spent one year as a postdoctoral fellow. He was hired as a WCVM faculty member in 2012 and began teaching in 2013.

Rubin publishes regularly on the topic of antimicrobial resistance through his research work, but he’s also engaged in the scholarship of teaching itself. He has become a leader in creating open educational resources, and recently published several papers on teaching innovations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One publication reported on a creative approach that Rubin took to teaching his second-year bacteriology and mycology course in the 2020-21 academic year when nearly all of the DVM program was delivered online. One of his ideas was an assignment requiring students to write sections on Wikipedia pages of specific bacteria that are part of the college’s DVM curriculum.

While this is the first time Rubin has received a USask award for his teaching, WCVM students awarded him the “2021 Excellence in Online Teaching Award” for his delivery of an online microbiology course for undergraduate students.

Q & A with Dr. Joe Rubin

What motivates/inspires/excited you about your work?

As a microbiologist, I have the privilege of seeing a world that is literally invisible to most people. It's a really exciting time to be working in infectious diseases. As a researcher who studies bacteria that move back and forth between people, food and animals, I have a “big picture” perspective that is so rewarding to share with veterinary students in the classroom and with graduate students in the lab.

Antimicrobial resistance — my main area — is a huge threat to medical science and is an under-appreciated pandemic that's occurring just below the surface. As a teacher in the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program, one of my biggest motivations is to give our future veterinarians the tools they need to incorporate principles of antimicrobial stewardship into their practice — a critical step for preserving the activity of these priceless tools.

Tell us about a mentor or supporter who made an impact on you:

As a microbiologist, I think the person who had the biggest impact on the development of my career was Dr. Manuel Chirino — my PhD supervisor and a long-time faculty member in the WCVM’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology. I first had the opportunity to meet Dr. Chirino during my second year of veterinary school, and I was really captivated by the microbiological world that he opened for us in the classroom. He was always very effective at combining the fields of classical microbiology with clinical practice and he was eager to share his tremendous breadth of experience. I spent two summers as a research student in his lab before beginning my post-DVM graduate studies.

One of the most inspiring things for me as a young scientist at the time were all the little nuggets of wisdom and experience that Dr. Chirino would share with me. He was famous for showing you things that “aren't in the books,” which is a lot in the veterinary field! I took over teaching the second-year veterinary bacteriology and mycology course from Dr. Chirino in 2016, and since then, I've had big shoes to fill. I often reflect on my own experiences as a student in this class with him as a teacher.

What is one piece of advice you would give to students, colleagues or others in your field?

The class that I teach in the veterinary curriculum is microbiology. It is foundational knowledge for veterinarians, but it doesn’t involve working with animals in the clinic. It’s a course that many veterinary students are not excited about at the outset — they want to work with animals. My advice to students would be to try and project the value of this course into the future; treating bacterial infections is one of the most common indications for seeing a patient when you are a veterinarian, whether you’re seeing a pet in the hospital or conducting a farm visit for agricultural producers. What we’re learning may not feel related to the real world, but you will actually use this information all the time. To ensure that you’re doing your part to combat the emergence of antimicrobial resistance, it’s essential for you to understand the microbiological and pharmacological principles which underly your treatment decisions.

I’ve really only been teaching in a major capacity since 2016, but what I’ve realized is that student engagement is really important. One of the strategies that has worked well for me is to be really engaged with the content and to be really excited about what I’m teaching.

Sometimes students “have to eat their broccoli,” which is sometimes how they view this course. As an instructor it's my job to show them that broccoli is actually delicious and will ultimately make them better at their jobs in the future.