TA Spotlight: Dustin Hayden

April 29, 2021

TA Spotlight: Dustin Hayden

by 

Tristan Davies | Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Dustin Hayden speaks during a Champions of the Brain Fellows gathering. Dustin was the recipient of a Stark (1968) Fellowship in 2017 and a Singleton Fellowship funded through the program.

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“I jokingly call myself a dumdum,” says fifth-year graduate student Dustin Hayden, who then quickly pivots to a more serious point. “But I don't think there are dumb people. There's only ignorance, and ignorance is temporary. It's fleeting. It's an obstacle to overcome, but it doesn't mean you can't do it.”

This doggedness, which is front and center in his work as a teaching assistant, comes from what Dustin calls his “sheer, unbridled hatred for not being able to understand something, which happens a lot. And then once I finally get it, it's like I battled a demon and won. It's this nice little moment of clarification. And what I like doing is helping someone fight their own battle; it’s really nice to help people understand both themselves and why they didn't understand something to begin with.”

After four years as a TA for 9.01, Introduction to Neuroscience, Dustin knows the topics that most often stymie the students in his recitation section, and he’s put a lot of effort into finding ways to break through. Take the concept of the equilibrium potential in neurons: “I have whole diagrams and step-by-step, millisecond-by-millisecond circuits where I slowly freeze time and explain every single piece of the process of how equilibrium potentials are formed.”

Beyond finding the best ways to lay out a topic, Dustin understands that seeing students as people is also important to finding the insights needed to teach well, “having them recognize you as both an authority figure and someone that they can open up and be true to themselves with, which then can help you to figure out how to best get them to understand what they would like to understand.”

His view wasn’t always so clearly directed outside himself; in high school and college, he recalls, he was an outsider. “And so teaching was that one rare moment where someone actually sought me out. It was a selfish, but really nice, welcome moment where I was needed for the first time, and that was nice.” Dustin is starkly honest about the period when the rewards of teaching shifted from helping himself to helping others. He remembers his grandfather—a father figure to him—who spent seven years battling cancer. “When he died, it was this come to Jesus, wake up moment for me of, would I have made him proud of the person I was and am now? And I realized that, with everything that he had been going through in the years prior to that, I hadn't been there for him. And I don't want to ever be that again. I don't want to have that doubt again. That was the real inflection point for me of just trying to make sure that I tried to be as good as I could. I think now after my grandfather's death, teaching is much more about helping others help themselves, it's less of a performance and more of a therapy session.”

With his attention on those around him, Dustin also sees that teaching is about much more than helping out during grad school, or with his current colleagues in the Bear Lab or the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory— it’s about the impact he will make through the years to come. “How can I best be a mentor, a leader, a PI in my own work. How can I help a graduate student by asking the right questions when they're down or when they're not getting something?

“Not to be trite, but it occurs to me that one of the great things about good teaching is it radiates outward in that when you help people understand it better for themselves, they share with others and find tools to better understand and explain sort of down the line, which I think is a really great thing.”

TA Spotlights is an occasional series featuring BCS’s most outstanding teaching assistants, their work, and their journey as educators. To suggest someone for a future spotlight, email bcs-info@mit.edu.