Smart Students, Best Teacher

October 1, 1997

Mary Ann Travis

It's the first day of class. Everyone--students and professor--in the florescent-lit classroom in Dinwiddie Hall seems a little nervous. But already, Erik Ellgaard, associate professor of cell and molecular biology and the 1997 recipient of the university's highest teaching honor, the Sheldon Hackney Award for Excellence in Teaching, is learning students' names, scanning the roll to find out their majors and commenting about the class. "Smart people," he says.

The students appear to relax a little as the first session of Developmental Biology 416 progresses. Ellgaard walks back and forth across the front of the room, lecturing, apparently with no notes. He uses the blackboard to diagram what happens when an egg is fertilized by a sperm. "When fertilization takes place, all hell breaks loose," he says.

With occasional wry humor, Ellgaard presents complex information about cell division and differentiation. He uses a fraternity analogy to describe how ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm cells group together. "They know the secret handshake," he says.

Ellgaard jokingly attempts to scare away students when he announces that his exams are more than 20 pages long. "This is designed to cut down the size of the class," he says. Actually the class of 22 is "just the right number," Ellgaard says afterwards. At times, Ellgaard says he has worried that he may have gone too far with teasing or poking fun, and he has apologized. But, he says, no student has ever taken offense at his levity. "They know I respect students as people," he says.

And students respect him back. Ellgaard has won numerous teaching awards in his 27 years at Tulane, "my first and only job," he says. On evaluations, students often mention that they appreciate Ellgaard knowing their names. "I've evolved as a teacher," says Ellgaard.

Like most college professors starting to teach in the 1970s and unlike young professors in the 1990s who have the benefit of teaching seminars about the tricks of the trade, Ellgaard had no training in how to teach. "I started by mimicking teachers I liked," he says.

Ellgaard always wanted to teach, an endeavor valued by his Danish parents. However, it wasn't until his senior year at Drake College in Des Moines, Iowa, that the former history and math major found his subject. He took his first biology class then, becoming fascinated by the field's new discoveries. His new-found passion for biology meant that Ellgaard had to take extra courses to change his major.

He earned his PhD from the University of Iowa and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Purdue. Ellgaard has continued to keep abreast of scientific advances in embryology and morphogenesis, the study of how the body's specialized organs and tissues are formed.

"I think that's why students like me," he says. "I keep up to date." The cell and molecular biology students Ellgaard gets are top-notch, he says. "Most are pre-med, and we're beginning to get students--better students--who want to go to graduate school."

In his career at Tulane, Ellgaard has written hundreds of letters of recommendation for students wanting to get into medical school. "I don't have a form letter," he says. "It takes time, for each one. I'm not the best writer." Such attention to students--Ellgaard has had as many as 100 advisees at a time, and he oversees the office of preprofessional advisers--contributes to Ellgaard's extra ordinariness.

Robert Robins, political science professor and deputy provost who supervises the awarding of the Hackney Award to a member of the Faculty of the Liberal Arts and Sciences each year, says "Not only has Professor Ellgaard been an effective teacher in the classroom, he has also been effective outside the classroom, advising students and being available to them."

Ellgaard's research interests include gene control and pollution biology, the effect of heavy metals on the environment. He's worked with undergraduates on some of these projects and says that such research opportunities for undergraduates "are one of the strongest things Tulane offers."

More than 20 undergraduates have had co-authorship of scientific research papers with Ellgaard. Ellgaard expects all his students to "interpret new stuff"--from sources like Science and other research publications. So, how does Ellgaard challenge this new group of students in the first class of the fall semester? He gives them the assignment over the Labor Day weekend to write a one-page, two-part paper discussing, first, their thoughts on the dilemma of science vs. God, and, second, their ideas about evolution vs. creation science.

Ellgaard asks that the students not reveal their specific religions, and says, "Don't try to guess what I am." He also tells them that they can be conscientious objectors, if they want, and not do the paper. The assignment arose from Ellgaard's concern that he cannot teach developmental biology without relating it to evolution and some students still interpret evolution as a negation of God, which, Ellgaard wants to make clear, is not his intent.

"We are not trying to convert you into science from religion," he adds. He explains that Nature reported that a 1997 poll found that 40 percent of working physicists and biologists hold strong spiritual beliefs. (This is almost exactly the same percentage as in a similar poll in 1916.) The papers are to be turned in anonymously. Ever the consummate teacher, Ellgaard says, "I just want a feel for what you think."

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