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Environmental Factor, September 2012

Swerdlow named assistant professor at Thiel College

By Jeffrey Stumpf

Sarah Swerdlow, Ph.D.

In addition to her research at NIEHS, Swerdlow was active in leadership roles, including participating in the NIEHS Trainees Assembly, leading seminars for the NIH Summer Internship Program at NIEHS, and representing NIEHS at career fairs. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Roel Schaaper, Ph.D.

While wishing Swerdlow a bon voyage and good luck, Schaaper also noted that she may be able to continue certain aspects of her NIEHS work and hopes to collaborate on future projects. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Postdoctoral fellow Sarah Swerdlow, Ph.D., is taking her training in bacterial genetics at NIEHS to Thiel College in her new position as assistant professor. Swerdlow will teach genetics and microbiology courses, along with senior seminars and other classes, at the liberal arts college in Greenville, Penn.

As a member of the NIEHS Mechanisms of Mutation Group, Swerdlow spent the last two years identifying E. coli mutants that increase mutation rates by altering the balance of nucleotides within the cell. Swerdlow hopes to start a microbial genetics class that will give the students real experience in research, while teaching them basic microbiology techniques.

“Searching for these mutants involves every microbial genetics technique,” Swerdlow explained. “It will give them a great laboratory experience.”

While her primary role will be in teaching undergraduates, Swerdlow notes that managing long lab classes and mentoring senior research will satisfy her need to actively be involved in primary research.

“I’ll be at a bench, just not always doing basic research,” Swerdlow laughed. “But I will be mentoring senior research projects and helping the students come up with projects that are more along the lines of basic research.”

The journey’s end

Reflecting on her decision to teach college biology, Swerdlow remembered an influential meeting with an undergraduate advisor. Her innocent question about how to become a professor progressed into a detailed plan for obtaining experience and earning qualifications that would take years to complete. Unquestionably, Swerdlow stuck to the plan.

After completing her bachelor’s degree from Clarion University of Pennsylvania and her Ph.D. in the pathology department at Case Western Reserve University, Swerdlow’s journey sent her away to get two very distinct types of experience — as a teaching instructor at a branch campus of Bowling Green State University and later as a postdoctoral researcher at NIEHS.

Lead researcher Roel Schaaper, Ph.D., mentored her project at NIEHS and was pleased that the experience prepared her for the research aspects of teaching at Thiel. “Sarah loves teaching and interacting with students, and I have little doubt that she will be successful in her teaching career,” Schaaper predicted. “She will also have the opportunity to do some genetics research with her students.”

Although NIEHS does not directly offer classes for trainees to teach, Swerdlow sought out opportunities to teach lectures at nearby universities and to organize programs for the NIEHS summer internship program. In addition, workshops on college pedagogy, sponsored by the NIEHS Office of Fellows Career Development, were helpful in learning practical skills about being a professor, such as writing syllabi. Swerdlow mentioned that the workshop gave her a unique perspective that will help her future career.

“It allowed me to look at everything that I did wrong when I taught previously,” she joked.

Although these programs and experiences have prepared her for the next step in her career, Swerdlow advises others interested in teaching college classes to do what she did so many years ago.

“Go back to your undergraduate professors and ask what they did to become a professor,” she suggested.

A new beginning

Armed with a new purple laser pointer and an intense enthusiasm for teaching, Swerdlow has the monumental challenge of preparing multiple labs and lectures as well as creating a new molecular biology course. This daunting task has not curbed her enthusiasm, however.

“I’m so excited to teach, and to not only help the students learn biology, but also learn to like biology,” Swerdlow said. “I really want to help the students reach their goals and get them to where they want to go.”

(Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D., is a research fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group.)




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