Faculty Spotlight: Heidi Elmendorf

February 3, 2015—In classroom and the lab, Associate Biology Professor Heidi Elmendorf is all about creating opportunities. For this commitment to her students, Elmendorf won the 2014 DC Professor of the Year award.

Given by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the award recognizes outstanding undergraduate instructors in the United States. Elmendorf is the fifth Georgetown professor to be named DC Professor of the Year.

In 2009, Elmendorf and Associate Professor Anne Rosenwald co-founded Georgetown’s major in the biology of global health. “Anne and I have an expansive view of science both in terms of who should be a part of science and where scientists should be,” she said.

Elmendorf and Rosenwald co-teach a course for sophomores who are beginning the biology of global health major. Their students tackle issues such as creating a national preparedness plan for botulism or addressing ineffective flu vaccines. “We usually task them with something [that] we don’t have an answer for,” Elmendorf explained.

Students also learn how to communicate their work to a variety of audiences, both within and outside the sciences. “We try to give them a range of experiences that lets them see what it’s like to be a scientist in different settings,” she said. “Part of my job as an educator is to provide opportunities, and then give students a chance to do their own thing with those opportunities,” she continued. Elmendorf’s students have gone on to careers in research, law, policy, medicine, and K–12 education.

In the lab, Elmendorf encourages students to develop and ask their own questions, which introduces them to the work of research scientists and allows them to take ownership of their education. “Part of what gets students excited about research is it’s a thrill to ask your own question, she said.  

Elmendorf’s own research questions focus on the parasite Giardia lamblia, which affects approximately 33 percent of the developing world, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “Parasites in general haven’t read the rule book; they do weird things in weird ways. And I find that endlessly fascinating,” she said.

Giardia lamblia causes an intestinal inflection called giardiasis. In collaboration with Professor of Physics Jeff Urbach’s research lab, Elmendorf and her team of graduate and undergraduate students are studying how the parasite attaches to its host.

“We’re trying to discover the biological physics—the mechanics—of how the parasite attaches,” she explained. Many microbes attach by “molecular sticking,” a process by which proteins and sugars on each surface attach through a “Velcro-like arrangement.” But Giardia can attach to any surface, even Teflon and glass, which has led scientists to theorize that Giardia has the ability to attach through other means.

Although the parasite has a suction cup-like disk on the underside of the cell, it is not the only mechanism involved in attachment, Elmendorf says. The surface of the small intestine resembles a “shag rug,” which would prevent the disk from forming a perfect seal. Elmendorf and Urbach are currently investigating the parasite’s ability to move fluid and create its own suction to a host cell.   

“If you have the right structure and you move fluid through that structure, you can create a pressure differential, a suction force. If you generate that pressure deferential between the belly of the parasite and the cell it’s attaching to, the suction force pulls the [parasite] down,” Elmendorf explained.

Knowing how Giardia attaches will allow researchers to explore targeted drug treatments to either detach the parasite or prevent its attachment. When treatments are based on a greater understanding of the parasite, Elmendorf says, drugs have fewer unintentional consequences. “[This type of work] fulfills my passion for doing research that matters at a very fundamental level in today’s society.”

As her research lab tackles Giardia, Elmendorf is teaching her students to be able to confront the next parasite, disease, or outbreak. “The world and its challenges will continue,” Elmendorf said. “If you don’t value [undergraduate education], then you are not preparing the world for its future.”

 —Elizabeth Wilson