Kirsten Guss coaches students’ scientific interests
September 1, 2007
Kirsten Guss, assistant professor of biology, Dickinson’s first John R. and Inge Paul Stafford Endowed Chair in Bioinformatics
At the end of a labyrinth trail of laboratory rooms, with their cool, gray-black counters, test tubes, beakers and microscopes, lies an inviting office with casual chairs, technical journals, a “Women of the Wild West Shows” poster, and a woman who looks like she could be a star athlete.
In this case, appearances ring true: the woman who inhabits this office is a champion athlete as well as a trailblazing pioneer on the frontiers of science. She’s Kirsten Guss, assistant professor of biology, and Dickinson’s first John R. and Inge Paul Stafford Endowed Chair in Bioinformatics.
Bioinformatics is where biology meets computer science in the study of genetics. Also known as “computational biology,” it uses computer tools to organize and make sense of the three-billion bases that make up the human genome. Bioinformatics is a relatively new discipline that promises to revolutionize biology and reshape health-related research.
Even among her fellow scientists, Guss is no ordinary scholar. Her cutting-edge research into the development and control of gene expression has been published in the prestigious journal Science.
Despite reaching this level of scholarly success, Guss feels no temptation to become an insular researcher. “Research alone is not enough for me,” she says. “I like to whet my students’ appetites for the feast that is biology and persuade them to sample it all.”
Guss’ teaching style has been influenced by her childhood in Cody, Wyo., where she attended a three-room country school. Every student was given attention. “I was treated as an individual, and this has impacted how I treat my students,” she says.
Guss is an inspiring adviser for the many biochemistry and molecular-biology students who seek her guidance on their independent-research projects. Her coaching does more than usher them into the scientific method: many of them will get, as she puts it, “bitten by the research bug” and go on to pursue careers in science.
One of those success stories is Jessica Landis ’06, who was having trouble choosing between her twin loves of math and biology. “Then the light went on for Jess,” Guss recalls, “and she saw that doing research would allow her to do both.”
Landis spent the summers between Dickinson semesters doing research at the University of Texas at El Paso and Baylor University before going on to Princeton University, where she is a graduate student in molecular biology.
As a seasoned scientist and an athlete in high school who appreciates the complexity of the human organism, she maintains an awe of the human body’s capabilities. In her introductory course on the human life cycle, This is Your Life, she often reminds her students, “It’s remarkable that [the body] works—so take care of it!”
Guss takes care of herself and is an active runner and road-biker. Her students sometimes join her in running events, such as the Jim Thorpe 5K run at the Army War College. “Team Guss,” sporting its own “Guss Lab” T-shirts featuring a fruit fly with running shoes, has even brought home some medals.
Dickinson students receive extraordinary dividends from her efforts. Guss designed an innovative course in developmental genomics with both lecture and lab components that puts students at the forefront of the bioinformatics revolution in science.
Guss plays an important role in fueling Dickinson’s powerful, research-intensive undergraduate environment. This is evidenced by the number of presentations made by Dickinson students at national conferences and by scientific papers published with student authors.
Like science itself, Guss is not slowing down. Along with a colleague from a major research university, she recently submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a project that will examine how gene expression unfolds during the development of fruit-fly wings. Understanding this process will require her to delve into the nervous system of the embryo—a new research direction for Guss.
The students in her animal-development course will be taking this next step with her, becoming research assistants and, perhaps, even feeling “eureka” moments when they strike scientific gold.
But to hear Guss tell it, she’s already made an important discovery about herself: “I’m here at Dickinson because it’s the right place for me. I love the students and their energy.”
At that moment, her eye catches one of those energetic students conducting an experiment in the lab just outside her office. She stops in mid-sentence to become a coach. “What is your control [condition]?” she asks supportively.
For Guss, it’s all in a day’s work.