View All Stories


View All News


Most people return from summer vacation sporting a tan and with memories of relaxation. Deborah Vaughan came back from hers last year with hundreds of exam questions on computer software for School of Medicine students.

As passionate about work as about downtime, Vaughan (GRS’72) pioneered computer-based exams at MED and early on adopted other technology to quiz students in lectures and discussion groups. Now, conveying old-fashioned medical professionalism while seizing new-fashioned technology has won the professor of anatomy and neurobiology the 2013 Metcalf Cup and Prize, the University’s highest teaching honor.

“I was astonished” to learn of the award, says Vaughan, director of MED’s course in medical histology, the microscopic study of tissues. In addition to recognizing her innovations, she says, the award reflects “the strong support of MED for teaching, and especially the support of our talented educational technology personnel.”

For Vaughan, the human touch is every bit as important as machines are. Also MED’s assistant dean for admissions, she tries to meet with students, many of whom “have not previously experienced a faculty member who reaches out to them,” she says. And although she holds a PhD rather than an MD, she believes she can still “model the professionalism we attempt to develop in our students. I am available to them, I communicate readily and in a timely manner, and the respect I have for all my students is apparent to them.…I invite struggling students to meet with me, a request they appreciate and to which they respond favorably.”

Vaughan “is one of the select few who embrace change, especially when it is for the betterment of curriculum and/or for students’ learning,” according to a letter from colleagues nominating her for the Metcalf Cup and Prize. “It is more than common to receive enthusiastic emails from her before the sun rises as she beams about the latest tool she’s using to augment her course for the better.”

She has used technology to modernize histology, a course formerly involving lectures and laboratory sessions in which students examined glass microscope slides with a high-resolution light microscope. “In the late 1990s, I reversed the traditional order of a lecture followed by a laboratory session,” she says. “Thereafter, our students completed the laboratory exercises, guided by a faculty instructor,” before going to a lecture.

“This unconventional arrangement assured that the students would be familiar with the relevant histological structures and vocabulary before attending a lecture,” boosting learning efficiency, Vaughan says. In 2007, the histology course entered the digital age, losing the microscopes and slides for digitized images, leading to “a major pedagogical redesign of my course.”

Students now learn topics in three steps—self-study of tissue images; an interactive, small group discussion led by faculty; and a large lecture. “The three steps incorporate different learning approaches in different social contexts,” says Vaughan. “This design keeps the curious student engaged, while building on previously acquired knowledge.”

In 2002, she published an interactive online histology atlas as a lab guide for BU students; today, she says, it’s “an internationally popular” learning tool.

Vaughan earned a BA in biology from the University of Vermont before coming to BU for her doctorate. She did postdoctoral work in neuroanatomy here. She wrote a histology textbook and has twice won the Medical Campus Educator of the Year Award. She sits on the board of the International Association of Medical Science Educators.

The Metcalf awards, presented at Commencement, date to 1973 and are funded by a gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a former BU professor and Board of Trustees chairman emeritus. The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000, the Metcalf Award winners $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on nominees’ statements of teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations of the teachers. John Finnerty, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of biology, and Carol Brennan Jenkins, a School of Education associate professor of curriculum and teaching, won this year’s Metcalf Awards.

More information about Commencement can be found on the Commencement website.