Alumni nominate professors who inspired them and went above and beyond for their students for Texas 10. Nominators noted Ehrlich's enthusiasm for her subject, immunology. Her research has implications for the treatment of infectious diseases, autoimmune disorders and cancer. We sat down with Ehrlich to discuss her teaching and research.
Do you enjoy teaching as much as research? How do you balance the two?
I love teaching. I also really love my research. In some ways they're separate, but in a lot of ways they're really not. At this point, I'm not the one at the lab bench. I'm teaching others how to do research, and I try to bring my research into the classroom. I think learning about ongoing research makes the subject matter come alive for the students. … Research and teaching are very complementary.
What's your favorite part of teaching?
I really like it when students ask good, insightful questions because it makes me realize that they're getting the material and really thinking about it. So probably my favorite thing that happens is when they ask a great question, and sometimes I don't know the answer to it. Because maybe what they're asking about is being actively researched, or maybe I just don't know. You can kind of see their brains switching from textbook knowledge to actively seeing the gaps and the things that don't make sense about our understanding of the biology yet.
Your former students noted your enthusiasm for your subject. What is it about immunology that gets you excited?
The immune system is really powerful, and it impacts so many different aspects of human health. Our immune system has this monumental task to fight off the diverse viral, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections we encounter, and do all of this without attacking our own body. These pathogens are all on really different size scales , and our immune system has to first recognize that there's a problem and mount a very specific response to get rid of that pathogen. And then it has to resolve inflammation so that the immune response itself doesn't cause too much tissue damage—and then remember that specific pathogen so we don't get sick when we encounter it again. That's an incredibly complex system. I've always been fascinated by this complicated system is acting inside us at all times.
What is something you wish more people understood about immunology?
I wish they understood there is a lot we still don't know about the immune system. We can talk about a stereotypical immune response, but there are so many little things that can happen with an individual immune response that are impacted by so many different factors, like our genetic differences and history of previous pathogen exposures. And it's not all about us. It's also about the pathogen. Why do some vaccines offer lifelong immunity and others only last six months? We're still trying to understand these things.
What is something you wish more people understood about teaching?
It's a constantly evolving process. We're always trying to figure out what resonates and what works with students. Sometimes the light bulbs go off and our approach works. Sometimes it falls flat. Everyone learns differently. Every class is different. So, we have to shift and be flexible to try to make sure everyone is getting the most out of the course.