Emory Report
Sept. 11, 2006
Volume 59, Number 3


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Sept. 11 , 2006
Art of Science

BY kim urquhart

As a graduate student in biology, Pat Marsteller studied alligators. At Emory she has sunk her teeth into transforming science education during her tenure as director of the Emory College Center for Science Education (CSE), director of the Hughes Undergraduate Science Initiative and senior lecturer in biology.

“There is just a ton of things going on around here on all kinds of levels,” Marsteller said, reaching across her crowded desk to a to-do list taped to the side of her computer. From writing grants to directing the programs those grants fund, to teaching courses that this semester range from science writing to evolution, she has dedicated her 16-year career at Emory to creating new ways to facilitate learning.

Her involvement at Emory extends to more than 20 committees, including the executive committee of the lecture track faculty. She is also active in national and international organizations.

Marsteller first came to Emory in 1990 as a senior lecturer in the biology department. She was brought in to direct a new Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant for improving undergraduate biological sciences education in the biology department, with a focus on attracting women and minorities to careers in science and medicine. “What I have done since has grown out of that,” she explained. “I now say our center has a mission of improving science education from K through gray,” she said of the wide-reaching programs.

Thanks in part to Marsteller’s efforts at CSE, HHMI renewed its funding this summer for the fifth consecutive time with a four-year, $1.9 million grant.

From innovative science education programs such as PRISM (Problems and Research to Integrate Science and Mathematics) to the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience at Emory (SURE), “we’ve been really successful,” Marsteller said. “Just take the SURE program, for example. Our latest data suggest that about 90% of participants go on to either graduate school or medical school, or Ph.D. programs. We’re now starting to see successes from the early ‘90s who are in faculty positions around the country and sending us students. It is just way cool!”

She said it is also cool to see how those programs have helped “make some serious inroads into encouraging and providing opportunities that allow women and minority students to stay in the science pipeline,” a goal of the CSE.

As a teacher, Marsteller’s goal is to encourage students to “grow and develop and find new things.” One of her mantras for undergraduate students is “find your passion. I want them to spend their undergraduate career exploring, finding out what they really are good at, what they really like doing, and where they think they can make a difference in the world.”

She understands this from experience, having originally hoped to be a doctor but eventually earning a B.S. and M.S. in biology, and later, a Ph.D. in zoology. Her passions have evolved from topics such as gene-environment interactions in organism’s life history patterns to the history and philosophy of science, the evolution of ethics and reform in undergraduate science education. While teaching at large state universities and tiny liberal arts colleges, Marsteller said she “learned to love” problem-based learning and inquiry-driven critical thinking—something that she has incorporated into Emory programs such as PRISM.

She said that one of the joys of her job is working with graduate students. “It’s so exciting because they are so creative, because they so value the opportunity to think about science education, not just science research.” Sharing their knowledge with others through the programs that CSE offers “rejuvenates them, it makes them more excited about going back to their lab and doing their research,” she said. “It also makes them see that there are other aspects where they might take their careers that they haven’t thought about.”

Marsteller also encourages students to “think a little more broadly on how to prepare for all parts of their careers, not just the research side.” As a vocal proponent of the need to reinvent graduate and postdoctoral education, Marsteller explained: “We’re trying to sell inquiry-based instruction and inclusive instruction at all levels. We’re trying to sell something that’s different than the current delivery mechanism for most science, which is ‘we’re going to cover the entire textbook, we’re going to lecture about all the facts and you’re going to repeat them back to us.’”

Though she has birthed many initiatives at Emory, she joked that she is “literally the mother of LearnLink.” Her son Sean, who was a teenager at the time, invented and developed the online bulletin board, which Marsteller and Paul Lennard then piloted in a physiology course. LearnLink is now relied upon daily by students and faculty, and Sean now works for FirstClass—the platform on which LearnLink is based—in Canada.

Her husband, Fred, also has an Emory connection. Now a consultant, Fred previously was a statistician in the psychiatry department. They didn’t meet at Emory, however. Fittingly, “I met him at an evolution conference,” Marsteller said. The rest of the Marsteller household consists of a wirehaired pointing griffon named Dionysius and a lab-golden mix named Curious George. The dogs go everywhere with the Marstellers, even to Canada to visit Sean and his wife.

When she is not spending her free time traveling, gardening, camping or scuba diving, Marsteller is busy authoring books and articles. However, she always finds time to be a mentor to her students and colleagues.
“Mentoring is a sounding board for where you go and what you do. There is never a stage in your life where you don’t need a mentor,” she said. “I teach my graduate students that from day one, you need to find a mentor and be a mentor.”

She credits her mentors for her success. “I’ve had such wonderful people to help me in my growth and development,” she said. “Without their support I couldn’t have accomplished nearly as much as I have.” She added, “And I couldn’t do any of what we do without the collaboration of the faculty. The institutional support has been fantastic.”