How Bass Connections Helped Shape My Career in Medicine and Theology

October 13, 2020

Duke faculty member and alumna (M.T.S. ’14, Th.D. ’19) shares insights from her interdisciplinary pathway

Sarah Jean Barton.

As a doctoral student in the Divinity School, Sarah Jean Barton took part in a Bass Connections project on improving disability and health initiatives and received the Bass Connections Award for Outstanding Mentorship. Now a Duke faculty member, Barton spoke with Dana Adcock ’22 on the impact of her two-year involvement in Bass Connections.

Where are you at this point in your career?

I have a dual faculty appointment at Duke. I work both in the School of Medicine and Duke Divinity School as Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy and Theological Ethics. Part of my job is working in the newest program in the School of Medicine, which is the Occupational Therapy Doctorate. I’m conducting research, teaching and doing a lot of curriculum development.

I also work as an occupational therapist through Duke Health. I work one day a week in an outpatient pediatric clinic. I’m still able to practice as a clinician, which is really valuable to me.

I’m happy to be at Duke, which is a place that has been so supportive of my interdisciplinary background and skills, teaching, and my interests moving forward.

What links do you see between your Bass Connections experience and your career path?

In Bass Connections, part of my role was doing research methods training. I also received training and teaching from professors across the university. They got me really excited about asking questions and seeing the breadth of inquiry that folks can embrace with a qualitative perspective. I was a science major as an undergraduate, and I had my master’s in science before I came to Duke. I was much more used to quantitative stuff, but the qualitative training and teaching prepared me for my future research.

I think Bass Connections really valued my perspective, not only as an occupational therapist and as someone who studies disability, but also as someone who is coming from a theological and ethical field. They welcomed all perspectives that I brought along with me. It was one of the few places in my life that wasn’t pushing back against my interdisciplinary position, but was encouraging it and saying, “We want all these unique, diverse perspectives that you bring, and there’s a place for that here.”

“Participating in Bass Connections was one of the fondest memories of my time at Duke. It also generated incredible connections and networking that I’m still tapping into now as a faculty member.”

I liked being part of a project that was so interdisciplinary. Our team had collaborators from nine different schools. It really made me value a place like Duke that places a priority on diverse teamwork, diverse team members, diverse perspectives, and it does so in creative and respectful ways that I found empowering. It definitely influenced me to pursue this opportunity for the dual appointment that came up at Duke. I was confident that Duke would continue to be an environment that was supportive.

Dr. Barton and her team.
Barton and part of her 2017-2018 Bass Connections team

What is your biggest takeaway from your Bass Connections experience?

I think one of my biggest takeaways is that there is such power in teamwork and collaboration. Related to that, I think everyone brings unique expertise and strengths to a project. That’s one of the things that I love about Bass Connections – it brings people together around real world problems.

I learned so much from the undergraduate members of the team and had so much fun collaborating with them. It reinforced my approach to research and teaching, which is very collaborative. We’re all solving the problem together. It’s not a top-down approach to problem solving.

Do you have any advice for graduate students?

I might get in trouble for saying this, but you can’t do all the reading. This is advice that I got from a very wise faculty member, who is now one of my colleagues at the Divinity School. Learn how to skim, learn how to do quicker critical readings and learn how to collaborate with colleagues to tackle projects and coursework together.

In terms of graduate students who are just starting out in teaching, or are interested in teaching but are intimidated, I would say teaching takes practice. Don’t be fearful about looking silly or not knowing enough or messing up. What teaching really requires is being a good neighbor and being willing to learn together.

When I am facilitating courses, even though I’ve been teaching for almost seven years, I will say “this is really hard to talk about” or “I don't know the answer to this problem.” Part of what we do in a classroom or a learning community is practicing together, and we get to do that in a way that’s supportive of one another, that we can challenge one another, that we can interrogate and investigate what we might say.

Dr. Barton and her team.
Barton and part of her 2017-2018 Bass Connections team after a potluck dinner

Then we can practice saying it a different way that leads to greater trust, greater respect, greater clarity and greater integration of our team. Teaching is all about practice. Don’t be afraid to practice, and know that it’s an ongoing lifelong journey.

On the Bass Connections team, we had a lot of fun get-togethers. I took three of the undergraduate members to present at the American Occupational Therapy Association Annual Conference. It was their first time at an academic conference. Think outside the box about experiences that graduate students might feel like are normal parts of their academic development, and bring in undergraduates.

Participating in Bass Connections was one of the fondest memories of my time at Duke. It also generated incredible connections and networking that I’m still tapping into now as a faculty member. In my experience, it developed research partnerships, friendships and relationships with colleagues that are continuing today. In addition, we published two peer-reviewed articles in prestigious journals. It felt really worthwhile in all kinds of ways.

On October 30, Sarah Jean Barton will give an online talk on spirituality and disability in patient care. Attendance is free and open to the public; registration is required.

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