It’s hard not to get excited about science when in the company of Anna Edlund, assistant professor of biology, whose passion for the study of sperm, eggs, embryos, and sex manifests itself in surprising ways.
Take for example her collaboration with Lelavision, a performance company that uses music, dance, and sculpture to communicate scientific research to the public. For 13 performances in St. Paul, Minn., during the summer of 2009, Edlund, wearing a crown of rubber gloves to depict a plant’s stigma, lectured on pollination while dancers performed on huge, musical metal flowers and curled into metal pollen grains, recreating the fertilization process with all the acrobatic panache of a Cirque de Sole production. Called “The Anther, My Friend,” it’s the type of collaborative outreach between science and art that neatly defines Edlund’s approach to biological edification.
“I’m interested not only in how science influences art, but how art influences science,” says Edlund, who also worked with Lelavision on an educational video about plant fertilization for high school and college classrooms. Entitled, “Fertile Eyes,” it won the grand prize in the Chlorofilms Video Contest.
Now off stage, Edlund just applied for a Fulbright Research Grant to study the illustrations of pollen grains drawn by Gunnar Erdtman, a famous Swedish pollen biologist. This work will take her to Stockholm, Sweden, a city that holds fond associations for Edlund.
It’s where she met her husband while doing cell biology research at the Nobel Institute before heading to the University of California, Berkeley, to earn a Ph.D. in developmental and cell biology. After researching frog embryos at Berkeley, Edlund conducted her postdoctoral study of pollen (plant sperm) at the University of Chicago.
In Chicago, Edlund studied how delicate pollen cells can navigate from the stigma of the flower to the future seeds deep inside for fertilization.
“My love of biology began when I was a child, and in college I quickly chose developmental biology over all other fields” says Edlund, whose father was a professor of medieval literature at the University of Illinois, a happenstance that tends to deflate any theory involving the inheritance of academic specialty.
“It’s the idea of new life; the building of an individual and the assurance through sex of the next generation,” she says.
A tank of amphibians in her high school classroom played a part in her career story. Charged with caring for classroom animals, Edlund decided to simulate a rain shower one day by gently drizzling the frogs with water. They responded by beginning to mate, something they hadn’t done for years. Intrigued, Edlund wrote about why rain was a turn-on for frogs in her successful application essay to Swarthmore College.
During her undergraduate years, Edlund worked her sophomore summer on human sperm research and junior summer on the human placenta, interning at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, Mo., where she studied the transfer of calcium from mother to fetus. She had only 30 minutes to prepare the newly delivered placentas for her experiments.
“As soon as I got a call that a woman was delivering, I would run through the halls, past the Coke machine, skittering over the catwalks with my bucket of ice, to transport the placenta back to the lab,” she recalls.
She’s still practicing science in perpetual motion. Her Biology of Women class is akin to a girls’ night out with Edlund dishing the straight dope on everything from the shape of a vulva, to STDs, to breast changes in pregnancy. Her students are tracking their basal body temperatures to chart ovulation (even the guys) and creating public service announcements on reproductive health issues.
“I try hard to include lots of active learning and demonstrations,” she says.
Before coming to Lafayette in 2009, Edlund was an assistant professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, a historically black, women’s liberal arts college. For a lesson on cell biology, she took students to a hospital pathology department to see how Pap smears are screened for cancer. A unit on microbiology and the vagina was capped with experiments involving spermicidal foam and live sperm. She hopes to recreate those experiences at Lafayette.
“Using sex as a hook,” she says, “there’s no problem getting students to pay attention to what I’m teaching.”
It’s also a way to empower students about their bodies. A former student, who had a needle biopsy of a lump she had detected in her breast, was able to look at the cells alongside the doctor and see through the microscope that they did not look cancerous. “How very reassuring to her,” she says.
Edlund is also big on having her students keep journals so they can dialogue and reflect on things they’ve learned in class, articles they’ve read, changes in their body, and the politics of reproductive biology. Taking time to synthesize, think deeply from new perspectives, and connect the dots is extremely important.
It’s also one of the reasons Edlund will spend eight days this coming May in Dharamsala, India, training monks and nuns about biology, as part of the Emory-Tibet Partnership, the only institution that has the Dalai Lama as a distinguished member of its faculty.
Edlund is excited that questions from this group will likely be more philosophical than the ones she usually fields in her college classroom, so she’s turning for advice to many liberal arts friends and colleagues, including one mentor who traveled to the Vatican to advise the Pope on matters of reproduction and early development.
This academic dynamo is leaving her stigma crown behind for now, but you can bet the monks and nuns of India will think of biology in new ways after Edlund’s visit.