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Stars Of Higher Education: Nancy Elwess, Recipient Of A Presidential Award For Excellence

March 12, 2010

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SUNY Plattsburgh Professor of Biological Sciences Nancy Elwess is a truly a Star of Higher Education.

After receiving her Master's in molecular biology from Purdue University and her PhD in molecular biology from the University of Vermont, Elwess went back to teaching. A molecular biologist with several areas of focus for her undergraduate research laboratory, Elwess' recent areas of study include the isolation and analysis of ancient DNA extracted from ancient Mayan skeletons (from Tipu, Belize).

Her laboratory is studying their migration routes; mitochondrial DNA sequences; and the presence of certain diseases within this population of ancient Mayan skeletons. In addition, Elwess's undergraduate research students are also investigating both the androgen receptor gene and the DRD4 gene (also known as the 'thrill seeking' gene) in humans.

Elwess is not just inspiring inside the laboratory. In January, Elwess was a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, an honor bestowed on only a handful of professors each year, for her work mentoring female and minority students throughout her career.

Elwess talks to Heather O'Neill about everything from working with paramecium and Mayan skeletons to deciding what to wear to meet the President of the United States.

Heather O'Neill: I understand you are a professor of biological sciences and you and your students are working on analyzing the DNA of skeletons of ancient Mayans. Can you tell me a little bit about how you became interested in that particular field of study and what you hope to learn from your research?

Nancy Elwess: Yes, that is one of my projects. We have the largest collection of Mayan skeletons here. I received a call from an anthropologist [at Plattsburgh] saying that he had this collection of ancient Mayan skeletons and that he had pretty much exhausted his studies as an anthropologist. He was interested to know if I could take his work to the next level, which would be doing the genetic analysis on them.

It intrigued me so I said, "OK, sure." I like new challenges and it was definitely a new challenge to not only learn about the ancient Mayans, but to also learn new techniques because there of the huge difference between working with living DNA versus extracting DNA from very old bones.

Heather O'Neill: How did you do it?

Nancy Elwess: We had to do it by taking one tooth from each skeleton, grinding up the tooth and taking the DNA that way. There are 588 skeletons and most of them were buried within or around a temple. We were looking at who is related to who, the migration routes to make sure they are 100 percent Mayan and not a mixture.

We were testing to see if any Spanish conquistadors had mixed with the Mayans -- and they had not--and then to see their general health, to see if there were any genetic diseases or disorders in that population.

Heather O'Neill: Where do you keep 500-plus skeletons?

Nancy Elwess: On campus we have something called The Bone Room and that is where they had them. They are very nicely packed away. The museum on campus came and packed them up because we are doing some renovations, so they are individually boxed and packaged and put in a special storage space until the renovations on the lab are done.

As far as the research goes, all we needed was a tooth. It is going to take us a while to get through all 588, if we test that many. We aren't yanking teeth out of the skulls. These are teeth that had fallen out and it is just amazing what this team of anthropologists and archeologists have done. Every single individual bone and tooth is numbered so we can trace it back to the skull it came from and so forth.

Heather O'Neill: You mentioned that this is a new field of study for you. What is your scientific background?

Nancy Elwess: Well, this is relatively new. We have been working on it for the last two years. I am a molecular geneticist and usually I am, what I call, gene hunting, or looking for new genes in different types of organisms and trying to see how far back some of those genes go, not only in humans but in other organisms.

I have three different projects going on that the students in the lab are working on. One is that we are looking at the risk taking or thrill-seeking gene by studying snow boarders and ski jumpers and people who do those kind of things. We are trying to connect the behavior with the genetics to see if the genetics is driving the behavior.

Another project we are working on is trying to establish a link between an individual's genes, aggressive behavior and the ratio of one finger to another.

Heather O'Neill: How did the idea for that research come to you?

Nancy Elwess: I am actually a marathon runner and I was running a marathon down in Tampa. On the plane back there was a women's sports magazine that I was flipping through. There was a little paragraph that suggested that a woman's athletic potential was in her genes and that the outward appearance of that was in her fingers. It is similar to knowing that I carry a brown eye gene because the outward appearance is brown eyes. It got me thinking.

If you look at the palm of your right hand, you have your index finger and your ring finger. What we have been doing is two things, first measuring the length of the index finger and dividing it by the length of the ring finger. My index finger is much shorter than my ring finger and the shorter it is the more long distance running ability you have.

Heather O'Neill: Mine look about equal.

Nancy Elwess: Some people's are equal. And, for lack of a better term, the sort of artsy-fartsy type of people will have an index finger that is longer than the ring finger and that can be traced back to a certain gene. It is all about how you react to certain hormones you are exposed to in the womb, which predispose you to your potential.

And here again I want to stress potential. I mean if someone has never taken up running it isn't like they are going to suddenly go out the door and win a marathon. For some people things come more easily, whether it is athletics or math skills or artistic pursuits. For some of these [talents] we are seeing a correlation in the genetic makeup.

I was collecting samples from women when I was in Boston running the marathon and, sure enough, there was a correlation between the finger length [and the women's' race times]. That made me start thinking about men [and how this might translate in the male body] and that is where we started studying aggressive behavior.

When I say aggressive behavior I don't necessarily mean it in a negative sense. I don't mean men who lose their tempers. The linebackers you want on your football team, those people you want to be aggressive. So, for the women we tested runners for their long distance running ability and for the men we tested aggressive behavior [in sports]. Plattsburgh's hockey team was number one last year and we tested their finger ratios and DNA and sure enough they had a lower ratio in their fingers and [exhibited] controlled aggressive behavior.

Another project I am working on is looking at the DNA of paramecium, which is a single cell organism, to see how far back those genes go. We are finding some unique genes in that study.

Heather O'Neill: Which of these projects helped you be nominated for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring?

Nancy Elwess: It was a combination of all three and then some.

As it name suggests, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring is designed to recognize the crucial role that mentoring plays in the academic and personal development of students studying science or engineering and who belong to minorities that are underrepresented in those fields.

Nancy Elwess: Right now my undergraduate research lab has 14 students and over the 12 years I have taught here I would say the makeup of my lab has been 75 percent female, and a little over 30 percent have been minorities. Over the last 12 years I have had over 100 research students.

I found out I was nominated and they gave me a list of things they wanted me to put together for consideration. Part of it was where my students that I have mentored are and what have been their successes.

They are all over the map, between doctors and surgeons and faculty positions at Yale and University of Oregon. They looked at the ripple effect, I guess. From them training here with me and their experiences, to what have they gone on to [in their careers].

Heather O'Neill: Was there a time that you made a conscious decision to mentor minority students or did it just happen naturally?

Nancy Elwess: I took a very detoured scenic route to where I am today. I started in the public schools in Chicago before I decided to go back to school. Being a woman and being of Hispanic descent I know... that if it wasn't for some very good mentors I wouldn't be here to today in the position I am in. I would probably still be teaching in the public schools in Chicago, not that that is a bad thing but I knew I wanted to go on.

It was a wonderful mentor that I had a Purdue University when I went back to get my Master's who really pointed me in the right direction. I saw the impact a good mentor could have on someone--connecting the dots, helping me get from A to B and exposing me to opportunities I didn't know existed.

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Kathy Lavoie, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, nominated Elwess in March 2008. The materials were submitted while George W. Bush was in office; when President Barack Obama was elected, his team had to review the candidates all over again. Elwess did not get another call about the award until July 2009.

Heather O'Neill: Since so much time had passed you must have been surprised to get that call.

Nancy Elwess: Yes, so much so that I didn't believe it. When I got the call, [the caller] told me who he was and congratulated me. But what kind of made red flags go off was that he said, "Don't say anything until we have an official press release from the White House and that won't be for two more days." I was like, yeah sure. So I took his name down and his phone number and when we hung up I picked up the phone and called back that number. And it was real. He said, "Didn't I just get off the phone with you?" I'd rather look foolish to one than to many I guess.

I had to sit on it for a couple of days, though I did tell my mother. The first words out of her mouth were not "Congratulations," or "How exciting." It was, "What are you going to wear?"

Elwess was flown to the While House, along with the other recipients, for a whirlwind of meetings and brainstorming sessions in January 2010.

Nancy Elwess: It was overwhelming. It was humbling and kind of surreal all in one. There were 14 of us being honored from across the country... they told us up front that it was going to be a working trip and it truly was. During my four days there I had a two hour session with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a session with [Arden L. Bement, Jr. ], director of the National Science Foundation, [one with] the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and they were all picking our brains.

The country is slipping in the sciences and they really want to know what we thought, as a group and individually, could be done to improve students' scores and at what level in school we thought we were losing kids in sciences. It was impressive that I felt that I had a voice and that I was being listened to so it was great.

The cherry on top of it was on Wednesday... they gave us 45 minutes in the White House to just wander around. Then, after we had a power lunch, we were escorted into the Blue Room where we waited for the President to come in. He shook all of our hands and gave us a signed certificate.

He hung out with us for 10 or 15 minutes. It was very quick.

Heather O'Neill: What were your impressions of him?

Nancy Elwess: He is very outgoing and he is from Chicago so we had a connection there. He is very personable.

Heather O'Neill: I guess my last question has to be, what did you wear?

Nancy Elwess:[Laughs] It was a business suit. A winter white business suit that my mother picked out.

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