Freshmen Investigate Urban Lead Poisoning
Hilary Godwin worries over the fact that so few minorities take
freshman chemistry. She aims to change that.
As associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, she has
designed a course based on the model of her own research into the
molecular mechanism of lead poisoning. As an HHMI Professor, she plans
to use the course to engage entering freshmen the summer before they
arrive at school. And it will continue to involve them throughout their
first college year.
The research project "is near and dear to my heart, but also is
desperately needed—to map out soil lead levels in neighborhoods in
the city of Chicago," Godwin says. "It's a great project because the
kids will get to learn about the city, and actually go out and do
fieldwork and get familiar with neighborhoods."
Plus, the skills that they learn while analyzing the samples will be
directly applicable to much of the material covered in the first
quarter of freshman chemistry, she says.
"On a social level, the project also should be interesting to them
because lead poisoning disproportionately affects African Americans and
Hispanics, the same minority groups we are targeting with this summer
program," she adds.
The idea is modeled after an existing incoming summer program for
minorities sponsored by the engineering school.
This program has produced a graduation rate for minority engineering
students that is double the national average. "I have taught freshman
chemistry to a lot of kids who participated in this program, and they
She describes the engineering program as "a real inspiration to me,"
adding that she plans to work closely with the engineering school staff
"to emulate some of the critical features that have made it so
In her own research, Godwin is studying how lead interacts with
biological molecules, proteins for example, and how those interactions
result in lead toxicity.
"The eventual goal is to use this understanding to develop better
treatments for—or, better yet, methods for preventing—lead
poisoning," she says.
One of the first women in the chemistry department at Northwestern
to receive tenure, Godwin grew up in Southern California with four
parental role models in science. Her mother, father, stepmother and
stepfather are all biologists. " I spent my summers doing field work
with my dad, collecting snakes, so on some level I always assumed I
would be a scientist," she says.
"However, I would never have become a chemist if it hadn't been for
a really wonderful and supportive teaching assistant in organic
chemistry who convinced me to try doing research in the lab next to
his," she says. "Once I started making molecules, I was hooked."