UPON recommendation of the Education Committee, the Genetics Society of America Board of Directors has approved a new award for excellence in education. The award recognizes individuals or groups who have had a significant, sustained impact on genetics education at any level, from K–12 through graduate school and beyond. Recipients of the GSA Award for Excellence in Education will have promoted greater exposure to and deeper understanding of genetics through distinguished teaching or mentoring, development of innovative pedagogical approaches or tools, design of new courses or curricula, national leadership, and/or public engagement and outreach. Elizabeth Jones is the inaugural recipient of this award.
Elizabeth (Beth) Jones earned a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington in 1960, a time when being a female with interests in hard science was poorly supported and few role models existed. Luckily, during her sophomore year, she took a job washing glassware in Herschel Roman's lab. Roman had recently given up hopes of pursuing corn genetics in rainy, short-summered Seattle and was developing yeast as a viable model organism to pursue genetics. Under the continued mentorship of Roman and only 4 years after earning her B.S. degree, Beth became one of the first recipients of a Ph.D. in genetics from the newly minted Department of Genetics at the University of Washington. Following postdoctoral training with Boris Magasanik, she worked as an instructor at MIT, setting the foundation for her life-long interest in genetics education.
Beth's first faculty appointment was in the Microbiology Department at Case Western Reserve University. In 1974, Carnegie Mellon University recruited her to the Biological Sciences Department, where she has pursued the rest of her distinguished career, becoming one of the premier geneticists of our era. She currently holds positions as the Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences, University Professor, and Head of the Department of Biological Sciences. Among her many honors and accomplishments, she is a Fellow of the American Academy of Sciences and recipient of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professorship, which is designed to support highly productive research faculty to work with undergraduates to convey “the excitement and values of scientific research to undergraduate education” (see http://www.hhmi.org/grants/pdf/comp_annc/2006prof.pdf). She has held a variety of offices in the Genetics Society of America, including president, and has been the editor-in-chief of Genetics since 1997. During this time, she has encouraged publication of articles related to science education, recruiting Patricia Pukkila, Professor of Biology at the University of North Carolina, to serve as special editor.
Elizabeth Jones' entire 40-year research career at the interface of genetics, biochemistry, and cell biology has been characterized by integration of research and teaching. In the past 5 years alone, she has mentored 29 undergraduates in her laboratory. For these students, who now are so numerous that they refer to themselves as “Jones' Undergrad Army,” the experience was life changing. For example, Aaron Mitchell, now a Professor of Molecular Pathogenesis at Columbia University, says, “Undergraduate life in the Jones lab remains one of the high points of my training. She encouraged us to think on our own about experimental design and interpretation. She never discouraged an idea, but urged us to develop clear predictions and extensions.” David Kirkpatrick, now Associate Professor of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development at the University of Minnesota, says, “I am a geneticist because of the lucky happenstance of meeting and working for Beth Jones. . . . Beth instilled in her undergraduates a love of genetics.” Roy Parker, Professor and HHMI Investigator at the University of Arizona, says he can trace the beginning of his evolution from a premed to a practicing scientist to Beth's influence: “A turning point in my career was taking Beth's undergraduate genetics course as an undergraduate, which led to working in her lab, and eventually a career in science. Working in Beth's lab as an undergraduate introduced me to the excitement and beauty of genetics, where I have now pursued research for over 20 years.”
Beth's love of science and excitement for discussing research results is a theme that emerges in talking to all individuals who have pursued research in Beth's lab. Sandra Lemmon, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology at the University of Miami who was a postdoctoral fellow with Beth, articulates how Beth establishes a culture of scientific discourse with all of her lab members: “One of the reasons Beth was such a successful mentor is she has an amazing intellect and excitement for discovery. It was always a joy to come to her with some new and interesting results because you could depend on her to share in that excitement. Usually this happened in the late afternoon, when the undergrads and graduate students were around, having finished most of their class work for the day. We would stand around at the chalkboard talking, drawing models or genetic crosses, and gathering ideas for the next experiments. Everyone was welcome in these discussions and was able to experience the fun of scientific exchange first hand no matter what their place in the lab. Of course we had lab meetings, but those late afternoon encounters are most vivid in my mind.”
In addition to her research mentorship, Beth has also developed legendary success in classroom teaching. For many of us, myself included, the gauntlet of the “Advanced Genetics” course that Beth organized and taught with other Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) faculty proved to be the moment that we authentically joined the intellectual community of science. During this literature review course for graduate students and senior undergraduates, we learned to examine results in detail and with skepticism, to appreciate elegant experimental design, and to formulate new questions, hypotheses, and “next steps.” Although I have tried to capture some of the Advanced Genetics “mojo” in the courses I teach, nothing has come close to the learning “architecture” created by Beth's course. It engaged your brain and your gut: The moment Beth released one of her trademark sighs, everyone in the room froze, knowing that the current line of thinking was profoundly flawed. We all immediately began scrambling to find the flaw before Beth pointed it out with distinctive annoyance. We not only learned how to think better, but also learned how to practice a key tenet of science: how to welcome criticism as well as how to give it. I took the course every year I was a graduate student, learning more each time as new topics were investigated.
Beth has also taught introductory genetics courses to thousands of undergraduates. She is noted for her dedication to her students. For example, this academic year she taught two sections of introductory genetics each with an enrollment of about 80 students. By studying student photos, she learned each student's name, helping them feel valued and making it impossible for anyone to hide in anonymity from the demands of the course. This balance of personal attention with high standards and accountability characterizes Beth's teaching. Another example of Beth's dedication to her students happened in an isolated CMU parking lot. While going to her car, she was approached by two teenagers, who demanded her purse and briefcase at knifepoint. Her briefcase was filled with final exams for Introductory Genetics. After a brief argument, the boys ran away with only her purse. The exams were safe, and her students' work was preserved so that their effort was not in vain and their grades were not compromised.
Beth's dedication to teaching has been recognized in her home institution by the Julius Ashkin Teaching Award from the Mellon College of Science and the Doherty Award from CMU for sustained excellence in teaching. Perhaps more importantly, John Woolford notes that “the faculty in Biological Sciences have been inspired by Beth's example. Our department is well known for its excellence in and devotion to teaching, led by Beth's example.”
Beyond her classroom and Carnegie Mellon University, Beth has also influenced thousands of other students and their teachers through textbooks, including Essential Genetics and Genetics: Analysis of Genes and Genomes, which she coauthored with Dan Hartl. These books provide additional testimony of Beth's dedication to passing on the clarity of her understanding and her life-long love of the beauty of genetics to students at all levels.
Because of her direct impact on the hundreds of students who have had the opportunity to learn from her face to face, her influence on teaching and learning genetics for thousands of students and their teachers, and her influence in lifting the practice of teaching into higher esteem in research societies and journals, Beth Jones is exemplary of the individual for whom this award was created. Congratulations, Beth! And, on behalf of the thousands who have had their lives enriched by your dedication to learning, thank you.
- Copyright © 2007 by the Genetics Society of America