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Sarah Elgin: Turning genes off--And turning students on to science

A 1963 Westinghouse finalist studies proteins that package DNA, and works to improve science education
elgin, westinghouse, genes, chromatin



Sarah Elgin

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.



By 1981, after a stint as a junior faculty member at Harvard University, she'd landed at Washington University in Saint Louis (W.U.), where she now runs the Elgin Lab. The lab—which goes through a lot of fruit flies—studies (among other things) the role chromatin plays in switching genes on and off. The Elgin Lab is best known for discovering a protein called HP1 that plays a key role in this process. Understanding why some genes are turned on—scientists say "expressed"—in humans, whereas some are not is a hot topic in current research. "All of the recent activity in gene silencing, and epigenetics"—that is, changes in how genes can function that occur without changes in the DNA sequence—"has been directly impacted by the original work that [Elgin] did" with fruit flies, says Ralph Quatrano, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at W.U. and the former chair of the biology department. "These are relatively new terms, new concepts, but this work that she—and others—did really led to this new way of looking at how genes are regulated, outside of the traditional way of looking at gene regulation."

WHAT SHE'S DOING NOW: Elgin continues to run her lab, studying how genes are turned off, but these days she also spends a lot of time trying to get students turned on to science. She started volunteering in schools when her own children were younger. "I became a real pro at organizing science fairs" in Saint Louis's University City district, she says.

Over time, she obtained funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), Washington University and other sources for more elaborate programs, such as running weeklong workshops for high school biology teachers on how to bring DNA science into their curriculum as well as providing them with classroom-ready supplies. "That's about the only way to do it," she says. "If you want teachers to be able to do hands-on science in the classroom, you have to provide both training and materials." Otherwise, she notes, you're relying on a few hardy souls to sterilize instruments in their kitchens with a pressure cooker.

She's also worked to give college students more opportunities to do real research. Her efforts have paid off. In 2002 she was named one of 20 HHMI professors, winning a $1 million grant that funds her efforts to bring genomics into the undergraduate curriculum.

Her grant was renewed in 2006 because of her work in "inventing ways for whole classes of students to do true discovery research," says Peter Burns, HHMI's vice president for grants and special programs. "That she has had several peer-reviewed publications resulting from classes of undergraduates doing research projects is good evidence of her success."

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