Jump to Footer

SUNY Plattsburgh professor earns presidential honor

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (July 10, 2009) - President Obama has named SUNY Plattsburgh Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Nancy Elwess a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.Elwess, who will be honored at a White House reception this fall, is one of but a handful of college faculty from across the country to receive this award.

Dr. Nancy Elwess with SUNY Plattsburgh students The award is designed to recognize the crucial role that mentoring plays in the
academic and personal development of students studying science or engineering and who belong to minorities that are underrepresented in those fields. According to a statement from the White House, "By offering their time, encouragement and expertise to these students, mentors help ensure that the next generation of scientists and engineers will better reflect the diversity of the United States."

"During her time at SUNY Plattsburgh, Elwess has developed a reputation for her advanced work with undergraduate students as she helps them conduct DNA research," said SUNY Plattsburgh President John Ettling. "Nearly 100 of her students have given presentations at national and international conferences, and many have brought home top honors. Scientists and faculty from other institutions are amazed at the high-level, quality work these undergraduates are doing."

Her students have been working to unlock the mysteries of the past as they analyze the DNA from skeletons of ancient Maya. They are trying to answer questions like did the disorder Beta-Thalassemia, a type of anemia, really exist in the Americas before Columbus set sail? What accounts for differences in burial among some of the Maya? Were some from more aristocratic family lines? What route did the Maya take across the Bering Strait? And are there other Native American tribes that share a common ancestry?

Her students are also working to unlock mysteries of the present, studying a newly found gene that exists in paramecium (single-celled organisms) that may tell them more about evolution.

Others have just completed a joint project, working with Elwess, Adjunct Lecturer Sandra Latourelle and members of the college's psychology department - SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Jeanne Ryan and Professor William Tooke. They searched for links between an individual's genes, aggressive behavior and the ratio of one finger to another. Their results will be released soon.

This sort of work has led to SUNY Plattsburgh undergraduates winning top honors for poster presentations at both the National Association of Biology Teachers and International Sigma Xi conferences four years in a row. In addition, many of Elwess' students have also gone on to pursue higher degrees in the field, being accepted into schools like Yale and the University of Oregon.

And Elwess is committed to providing these opportunities for a wide-range of students.

"I don't want to deny any student an opportunity, and I try my hardest to find funding for them to have an opportunity, whether it's for travel or for a meaningful research project - one that clearly has never been done before," said Elwess.

In offering this award to Elwess and others, Obama stressed the importance of their work.

"There is no higher calling than furthering the educational advancement of our nation's young people and encouraging and inspiring our next generation of leaders," President Obama said. "These awards represent a heartfelt salute of appreciation to a remarkable group of individuals who have devoted their lives and careers to helping others and in doing so have helped us all."

"Our faculty are here because they love to teach, and Dr. Elwess is certainly one of my best," said Dr. Kathy Lavoie, the college's dean of arts and sciences, who nominated Elwess for the award. "She is creative and energetic, and has really launched many of our graduates into careers as teachers, physicians, and researchers. She models enthusiasm and an active style of teaching that we want to see our students use whether they are formal classroom teachers or informal teachers of their own children. Science is fun, and that is sometimes lost in all the jargon and details unless you have an exceptional teacher like Nancy Elwess."

Before coming to SUNY Plattsburgh, Elwess served as a senior research fellow in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Prior to that, she was a junior high science teacher in Lansing, Ill.

She has been the recipient of many awards including the 2008-2009 Outstanding Undergraduate Science Teacher Award by the Society for College Science Teachers, the National Association of Biology Teachers' National College Research/Teaching Award, a State University of New York Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching, and alumni achievement awards from both Purdue and the University of Vermont. She was also named to Who's Who Among American Teachers and Educators in 2007.

Elwess also serves as a consultant to the National Science Foundation on Minority Post Doctoral Grants to the Biological Sciences, is a member of the board of directors of alumni associations at the Mayo Clinic and Eastern Illinois University, and is once again training for the Iron Man in Lake Placid.

She has a doctorate in molecular biology from the University of Vermont; a master's in molecular biology from Purdue University and a master's in science education from Governors State University, as well as bachelor's from Eastern Illinois University.

SUNY Plattsburgh (www.plattsburgh.edu ) was founded in 1889 as a teaching college and in 1948 became an original member of the State University of New York (SUNY). Under President John Ettling, the four-year comprehensive college now serves 5,500 undergraduates and 500 graduate students. It offers more than 60 majors and a wide range of special programs that prepare graduates for professional life and advanced studies through a strong foundation in liberal arts and an experience that celebrates excellence, ethical values, lifelong learning and responsible citizenship in a global community. Situated near Lake Champlain, the Adirondacks, and Canada, the college's unique location provides rich recreational, cultural and educational opportunities. Today, SUNY Plattsburgh is a thriving campus that has experienced significant growth in student applications, has been recognized two years in a row by Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine as one of the "Top 100 Values in Public Colleges," for its mix of academic quality, financial aid, opportunities and total cost. SUNY Plattsburgh was also named among the top schools in the 2009 edition of "America's Best Colleges" by U.S. News & World Report.

Back to top