Taking undergraduate research one step further, biology Professor Sally Elgin (center) helped establish the Genomics in Education program. Here, she works with Kasia Falkowska (left), A.B. ’05, and Wilson Leung, A.B. ’05.

Biologist Sally Elgin Lends a Hand to Improve Science Education

by Janni L. Simner

When Sarah “Sally” C.R. Elgin was in high school, her interest in science got a boost from the wide array of post-Sputnik lab courses then available. As an undergraduate, Elgin continued to seek out hands-on learning through summer lab jobs.

As a professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, she has worked tirelessly to bring hands-on learning to children and their teachers, through outreach efforts that share University science resources with the St. Louis community, and to enhance research opportunities for undergraduates. “I think hands-on learning is more convincing,” says Elgin, whose research focuses on the role DNA structure plays in gene regulation. “It’s about what people see, about what they hear.”

Elgin’s commitment to science outreach dates back to the 1980s, when her elementary-school-aged children were attending University City schools. She worked with science curriculum supervisor Jack Wiegers to bring Washington University science faculty into those schools, and to provide students with interactive environmental science and genetics projects. The pilot program was a success, and eventually Elgin expanded it and founded the University’s Science Outreach program, which serves K–12 schools throughout the St. Louis area.

One of Science Outreach’s best-known projects is Modern Genetics for All Students, which brings high school biology teachers to the Hilltop Campus each summer. These teachers work with University faculty on genetics lab projects that range from constructing simple paper models to performing genetic crosses in yeast and plants, spooling DNA, and transforming bacteria. Come fall, the teachers choose those activities that will work best in their individual classrooms, and the University backs them up with lab materials and, if needed, a faculty or Science Outreach staff member to help on-site. “This is a partnership,” Elgin says. “We have to depend upon one another if we’re going to make a change for the kids.”

Other Science Outreach programs include the Education 6000 courses, through which elementary and middle-grade teachers earn graduate education credit while gaining hands-on science teaching skills, a partnership between Arts & Sciences’ education department and basic science departments. Science Outreach also collaborates with Tyson Research Center, the St. Louis Science Center, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Saint Louis Zoo.

Elgin is quick to stress that running Science Outreach, too, is a collaboration: As director, Victoria L. May manages the day-to-day operations, along with a staff of a couple dozen. Last year, they reached out to some 1,700 teachers and nearly 24,700 students.

If Elgin herself isn’t in the Science Outreach office as much as she used to be, it’s because she’s been focusing on bringing hands-on research opportunities to University undergraduates. Elgin has always seen the opportunity for students to take part in real research as one of Washington University’s strengths; she regularly hires undergraduates to work in her own lab, and she’s also worked to bring selected high school graduates to labs on the Hilltop and Medical campuses the summer before their freshman year of college.

Since 2002, however, Elgin has taken undergraduate research one step further. That year, she was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) professor and awarded $1 million to bring the excitement of research into her University teaching.

Working with Elaine Mardis, co-director of the Genome Sequencing Center (GSC) at the School of Medicine, Elgin used the HHMI funds to establish the University’s Genomics in Education program. At the heart of this program is an undergraduate biology course, Research Explorations in Genomics, in which students use GSC facilities to sequence a portion of a genome and to analyze the data.

The course relies on both traditional lab work and computer analysis, and it draws upon so broad a range of expertise that no one person can teach it; several computer science and biology faculty take part, including Elgin. By the end of the course, the students know more about the whole process than any one of their professors. “The kids think that’s kind of neat,” Elgin says, adding that the students enjoy “being able to work on a problem where the information they generate is both novel and useful.” Some of that information has been incorporated into a paper currently under submission to Genome Biology, one of the major journals in the field.

“It’s a wonderful way to get kids engaged in research,” says Elgin, who’s working to expand the Genomics in Education program’s reach beyond the University, allowing undergraduates throughout the country to access and analyze GSC data online.

Ultimately, Elgin says, all her outreach efforts are aimed at helping students and teachers alike to understand that real research and real hands-on learning are within their grasp. “I want them to know that they can get at it,” Elgin says. “I want them to know that this is very doable.”

Janni L. Simner, A.B. ’89, is a free-lance writer based in Tucson, Arizona, and former editor of Alumni News.

  Peer Review

“I don’t know anyone who is more involved in education than Sally. She’s passionate about improving science education at all levels, and she gets others involved and active, too. She’s completely focused on the right things; she never lets me forget what’s most important.”
— Edward S. Macias, Executive Vice Chancellor and Dean of Arts & Sciences

“Sally has a real commitment to teaching students to think, not just to regurgitate information. I love her can-do attitude and how it inspires her students. I can’t tell you the number of people at other universities who know Sally or have heard of her—she truly is held in very high regard for her research and her commitment to education.”
— Elaine Mardis, Co-Director of the Genome Sequencing Center and Associate Professor of Genetics

“Sally has helped faculty see that good teaching is just as valuable as good research. She has a real sense of the challenges teachers face, and she genuinely wants every student to be able to do science with real materials. If you had ever seen her bring mutant fruit flies to a first-grade class, you would understand her ability to help kids get interested in science.”
— Victoria L. May, Director of Science Outreach

“Caring, committed to serving others, generous, inquisitive, and tough-minded are adjectives that describe Sally. She brings the same habits of mind [to teaching and outreach] that make her a good scientist. She is able to raise good questions, to marshal evidence to answer those questions, and to keep critiquing the answers.”
— Jack Wiegers, Science Outreach Instructor and former University City Science Curriculum Supervisor