FINALIST YEAR: 1963
HER FINALIST PROJECT: Measuring how many water molecules were attached to different salts
WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: In the late 1950's and early 1960's, when the National Science Foundation and other U.S. agencies began trying to improve science education in response to Sputnik, one beneficiary was Sarah Elgin. Her Salem, Ore., high school adopted the new standards and had all students do hands-on science. For Sarah and a few of her classmates, that meant projects identified by a professor at nearby Reed College in Portland, under the encouragement of Elgin's chemistry teacher, George Birrell.
In those days, "there were no organized sports for girls," Elgin says. "I spent most of my afternoons in the lab." Consequently, she finished what she describes as a "pretty much straight chemistry project," determining the "water of hydration"—that is, how many water molecules were stably associated with a given salt—for several different compounds. In some cases, knowing the hydration of different compounds can help you figure out chemical properties and reactions.
Elgin submitted the work to the 1963 Westinghouse Science Talent Search. She earned a finalist nod. For a small-town Oregon girl, going out to the east coast was a big deal. "I'd only once before had a chance to ride on an airplane," she says, adding that her normal idea of a vacation was to put the sleeping bags in the trunk and go camping. "Getting an airplane trip to Washington, D.C., when you were a senior in high school was unheard of." In Washington she got to meet her senator—a woman, also nearly unheard of for the time, Maurine B. Neuberger—and her picture was in her hometown paper. "My relatives were all impressed," she says.
THE EFFECT ON HER CAREER: Though Elgin did her Westinghouse project in chemistry, she always liked biology. In her high school biology class her teacher had her read Wolfhard Weidel's book, Virus, and give a report to the class. Elgin was so fascinated by the concept of hereditary material that her report lasted the entire class period—for three consecutive days. "All my classmates just about died," she recalls.
She went to Pomona College in California for chemistry, eventually landing at the California Institute of Technology where she earned a PhD in biochemistry working in the lab of James Bonner studying chromatin, which helps package DNA. She also did postdoc work at Caltech with Leroy Hood, a 1956 Westinghouse finalist, where they developed tools to further study chromatin in fruit flies, a common model for disease.