Washington University's Sarah C. R. Elgin is one of 20 'million dollar professors'

September 18, 2002

St. Louis, Sept. 18, 2002-- Sarah C. R. Elgin, Ph.D., professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, is one of 20 professors nationwide to receive $1 million over the next four years to bring the creativity she has shown in the lab to the undergraduate classroom.

"Research is advancing at a breathtaking pace, but many university students are still learning science the same old way, by listening to lectures, memorizing facts and doing cookbook lab experiments that thousands have done before," says HHMI President Thomas R. Cech. "We want to empower scientists at research universities to become more involved in breaking the mold and bringing the excitement of research to science education."

Cech is a biochemist who continued teaching undergraduates at the University of Colorado at Boulder even after he won a Nobel Prize. Teaching of undergraduates tends to be undervalued at research universities, notes Peter J. Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs at HHMI. "By rewarding great teaching and supporting a synergistic interaction between research and undergraduate education, we hope to sow seeds of a fundamental change in the culture of research universities. We want the HHMI Professors to demonstrate that active, productive scientists can be effective teachers too." Bruns, a leading geneticist from Cornell University, also taught undergraduates throughout his research career.

HHMI invited 84 research universities to nominate faculty members. A panel of scientists and educators reviewed 150 nominees' proposals and eventually selected 20 HHMI Professors at 19 universities in 13 states . All are tenured faculty members. They include nine women and three members of minority groups.

Some will focus on attracting more women and minorities into science; others want undergraduates to understand the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of science and its rapidly emerging new fields. Some will focus on providing early research experiences, and others will develop new high-tech teaching tools.

As researchers recognized in their fields, the HHMI Professors will participate in HHMI investigators' scientific meetings at Institute headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland. They will serve as a resource for scientists striving to improve undergraduate education nationwide.

Genomics,is the use of large sets of genetic data to analyze genome relationships, patterns of gene expression and gene function. Now genomics is moving the research of scientists like Sarah Elgin forward farther and faster than they had dreamed possible. Elgin wants to share the magic, with undergraduates and even younger students.

Elgin's research focuses on the role that chromatin structure--the packaging of the DNA in the nucleus of a cell--plays in gene regulation in fruit flies. She has chaired the international Gordon Research Conference on Nuclear Proteins, Chromatin Structure and Gene Regulation, served on the editorial board of several journals and served on the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but Elgin considers her role as a teacher equally important. Recently she agreed to serve as co-editor in chief of a new electronic journal, Cell Biology Education.

"My interest in education spans K-25 (kindergarten through postgraduate training)," she said. Since 1992 she has headed an HHMI-supported program at Washington University that provides summer research opportunities for undergraduates, supports curriculum innovation and does science outreach in the St. Louis schools.

Elgin believes that research experience is a critical part of an undergraduate education in science. "Undergraduate research opportunities were very important to me,"she said.

At Pomona College in southern California, Elgin received NIH support for undergraduate study in interdisciplinary sciences such as biochemistry and biophysics. This introduced her to current research the summer before her freshman year. She later spent a summer working on chemical kinetics at Pomona, the next summer at the University of Leeds in England, exploring a protein structure problem, and another summer at the California Institute of Technology, investigating chromatin structure.

Now Elgin wants to introduce undergraduates and school teachers to the exciting new field of genomics. As an HHMI Professor, she will design hands-on genomic investigations for sophomores and a research-based genomics laboratory course for juniors and seniors. She also plans to work with groups of science teachers to find ways to modify and design genomics lessons appropriate for middle and high school classrooms.

"We're trying to create informed consumers of genomic information, particularly as it relates to health," Elgin explained. "If we want to make students aware of DNA and their own unique genome, middle school is the right place to start. I want to help teachers lay a useful foundation for every child."
HHMI is a private philanthropy dedicated to biomedical research and science education. The Institute employs 324 investigators who conduct basic medical research in HHMI laboratories at 69 of the nation's leading research centers and universities. Through its complementary grants program, HHMI supports science education in the United States and a select group of researchers abroad.

See www.hhmi.org/news/091802.html for profiles and downloadable photos of HHMI Professors.

Washington University in St. Louis

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