Best Science Teacher for Adults: Selflessness and modesty from a frontline caregiver

Dr. Jan Avent

For ten years, graduate students interested in learning how to help stroke survivors learn to speak again have been basking in the glow of the quietly unassuming Dr. Jan Avent. Petite, soft-spoken, and dressed to kill, she single-handedly supervises her students to use the latest techniques and research — some of it her own published material on complicated theories called “reciprocal scaffolding” — to help people whose lives have turned upside down. Aphasia is a communication disorder brought on by brain injury that affects reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Roughly one third of stroke survivors become aphasic, which devastates them and their families. “They are the bravest people I know,” says Dr. Avent, who prefers to call the folks enrolled in her program “collaborators.” The way she sees it, the aphasia students get dressed (no easy feat) and get themselves to Hayward (no easier) to help her graduate students learn. The aphasia students include Ph.Ds, artists, and jus’ plain folks. The good doctor even hangs out with her grad students and aphasia students after hours. The warmth and devotion in the classroom leave visitors whipsawing between sadness and joy. We don’t know how she does it.

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