photograph by Jeff Miller

HHMI Investigator Sean Carroll Named Vice President for Science Education

HHMI announced in April that Sean Carroll, an award-winning scientist, author, and educator, will become the Institute's vice president for science education.

Carroll will be responsible for directing HHMI's portfolio of science education activities when he succeeds Peter J. Bruns in September. Bruns, a geneticist and former Cornell University faculty member, announced his retirement last year after nine years in the post.

“Sean is a gifted scientist who also displays an extraordinary talent for translating complicated scientific ideas in compelling, understandable ways to members of the public of all ages,” says HHMI president Robert Tjian. “He is in a unique position to connect our scientific and educational programs.”

Carroll, an HHMI investigator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1990, studies the development and evolution of animal form. He is considered a leader in the field of evolutionary developmental biology, or evo-devo. Carroll and his colleagues have used the tools of modern molecular biology and genetics to reveal how genetic changes during an organism's development shape the evolution of body parts and body patterns.

The 49-year-old Carroll is also widely known as a speaker and writer about science for the general public. He is the author of six books, including Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Origins of Species, a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in nonfiction. He writes a monthly column (also called “Remarkable Creatures”) for the science section of The New York Times and has served as a consulting producer for the public television program NOVA distributed by WGBH in Boston. In March, Carroll received the 2010 Stephen Jay Gould Prize in recognition of his efforts to advance public understanding of evolutionary science.

“HHMI has had a big impact in shaping how science is taught, particularly at the undergraduate level. Colleges and universities are shaking up what they teach and HHMI has been a catalyst for that change. That's a great legacy to join,” says Carroll.

HHMI is the nation's largest private supporter of science education. It has invested more than $1.6 billion in grants to reinvigorate life science education at research universities, liberal arts colleges, and undergraduate-focused institutions as well as to engage the nation's leading scientists in teaching through the HHMI Professors program. Other notable initiatives include the Science Education Alliance, launched in 2007 as a national resource for the development and distribution of innovative science education materials and methods, and the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), which offers mentored research experiences to select undergraduates.

“I want to help other people have as much fun as I have,” says Carroll in describing his decision to take on the new role at HHMI. “That requires thinking about how to foster creativity and innovation on a larger scale. We all need inspiration, but how do we nourish curiosity and inspire an interest in science, particularly among young people? These are crucial challenges and I hope to promote the very positive role that science can play in our culture.”

Carroll traces his own fascination with science to a childhood interest in collecting snakes, noting in an interview with the journal Nature that they inspired both his first experiments (their choice of food) and sense of beauty (the patterns of their skin). Today, Carroll's laboratory uses fruit flies—Drosophila melanogaster and its relatives—as models for understanding how new body patterns evolve over time.

In a series of studies published over the last several years, Carroll and his colleagues have traced the origins of complex body-color patterns. They've pinpointed mutations in gene regulatory elements responsible for when and where in the body those genes are used. “We are now able to trace the genetic steps of evolution in unprecedented detail. What our work has revealed is that, in general, body parts and body patterns evolve through ‘teaching old genes new tricks’—that is, using very old genes in new ways,” he says.

Carroll is recognized as an exemplary teacher and last year received the Viktor Hamburger Outstanding Educator Prize from the Society for Developmental Biology. The prize, established in 2002 in honor of a major figure in embryology, honored Carroll's contributions to the field and singled out his leadership as a mentor and educator. He is also a recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. Along with David Kingsley, a fellow HHMI investigator, Carroll delivered the Institute's 2005 Holiday Lectures on Science, “Evolution: Constant Change and Common Threads.”

A member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Carroll graduated summa cum laude from the Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and received a Ph.D. in immunology from Tufts University, where he worked in David Stollar's laboratory. Carroll did his postdoctoral research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in the laboratory of Matt Scott (now an HHMI investigator at the Stanford University School of Medicine), where he began his explorations in embryology and the study of genes that control body organization in the developing fruit fly.

Carroll joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin in 1987 and became a full professor in 1995. He is the Allan Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology, Genetics, and Medical Genetics. Carroll plans to maintain his laboratory at the University of Wisconsin.

Scientist Profile

Vice President, Science Education
Genetics, Molecular Biology