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Freshmen Investigate Urban Lead Poisoning

Summary

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 love it."

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 successful."

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."

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
Northwestern University

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