Not so long ago, no one had heard of genomics, 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 is a professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, where her research focuses on the role that chromatin structurethe packaging of the DNA in the nucleus of a cellplays 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 says. 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 recalls. 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 hot 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 explains. "If we want to make students aware of DNA and their own unique genome, middle school is the right place to start," she adds. "I want to help teachers lay a useful foundation for every child."