Reported by Catherine Yochum ’15
As the keynote speaker for Bowdoin’s 2014 President’s Science Symposium, biologist Sarah Elgin presented a speech rife with lessons learned throughout her illustrious career in the sciences. She set an inspiring example for the dozens of Bowdoin research students in the audience, who later that afternoon presented the fruits of their own summer research labors.
Elgin – who is the Viktor Hamburger Professor of Arts & Sciences in the Department of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis – began making discoveries as an Oregonian high schooler, collecting rainwater after the test explosions of atomic bombs. She was able to detect clouds of radioactivity as they passed over Oregon. “If anybody found this nowadays, we would complain a whole lot,” she said. “Back then, I was actually delighted.” First published as an undergraduate at Pomona College, Elgin did her graduate work at California Institute of Technology and spent time on the faculty at Caltech and Harvard University.
Much of Elgin’s work has focused on chromatin structure of fruit fly genes – euchromatin and heterochromatin – and on gene silencing and expression. Her current interests lie in expanding her gene silencing research to humans. Here are some of the most important lessons she learned along the way, which she passed along to the Bowdoin audience of budding scientists:
- Think now, as an undergraduate, about your professional name.
- If you get a negative review, don’t feel alone – and don’t give up!
- Paradigm shifts require multiple lines of evidence.
- Don’t be shy; scientists love to talk about their work.
- Read the literature, go to meetings and talk with friends in other lab groups, put together ideas!
- The best model system can make all the difference.
- Good ideas come from putting two approaches together.
- We benefit from the work of others when working on better known model organisms, as there is an extensive data bank.
- Share your work! It makes it more interesting and more important.
- Be prepared to keep on learning.
Following Elgin’s keynote speech, four Bowdoin students each came to the podium and spoke about their own research: Zachary Burton ’14, Andrew Pryhuber ’15, Megan Freiberger ’16, and Jackson Bloch ’15.
Burton, who works with geology professor Emily Peterman, talked about his study “Characterizing Reactions and Fluid Pulses in 30 Myr of Continuous Retrograde Metamorphism Using LASS Monazite Petrochronology.” Pryhuber explained his project “Harmonic Analysis on SU(2,1)” with mathematics professor William Barker. Freiberger spoke about her project with chemistry professor Soren Eustis, “Dissolved Organic Matter Sensitized by Photochemistry of 17α -Ethinylestradiol (EE2).” And Jackson Bloch ’15 discussed his study “Environmental Effect on Begging Call Ontogeny of Nestling Yellow Warbers” with biology professor Nat Wheelwright.
In the final event of the symposium, more than 100 Bowdoin research students assembled in Morrell Gymnasium to present posters of their work.