Edwin Ferguson, Professor in Molecular Genetics and Cell BiologyBy Greg Borzo
Medical Center Communications
It was midnight, and Edwin Ferguson was putting the finishing touches on a lecture about stem cells for the next day. Taking a break, he glanced at The New York Times on the Web and was drawn to one of the lead articles that reported a breakthrough in stem cell research. He spent the next couple of hours incorporating these findings into his lecture.
You get the picture. This is the portrait of a dedicated scientist who loves teaching.
Ferguson, Professor in Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, describes himself as very approachable and says that he “tries to engage students and riff off questions that come up in or outside of class.”
Ferguson realizes that few of his students will go on to study his specialty, the developmental genetics of the fruit fly Drosophila. However, many of his students have pursued graduate studies in biology. At a minimum, he hopes that all of his students will come away with an understanding of how the fields of genetics and developmental biology will impact their lives and an appreciation of the process of scientific discovery.
“When talking about a critical discovery, I always try to place that discovery in the context of the field of the time,” he said. “What was the initial insight or paradox that triggered the investigation? How did the discovery change the existing paradigm? I try to show that science is not static, that there are always unanswered questions, and to help students see how the field advances.”
Ferguson earned his undergraduate degrees in computer science and biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a graduate student, he briefly studied biological oceanography before switching to genetics and earning his Ph.D. in 1985 from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
Some of Ferguson’s current research focuses on how pattern is established during embryogenesis. “How does the complex form of the adult fly arise from the apparent homogeneity of the single-celled egg? What makes the head different from the tail, the front from the back?” Another aspect of his research focuses on stem cells in flies. He hopes that knowledge about fly stem cells can help guide research to use human stem cells in the treatment of disease.
Ferguson tries to approach the subject of his lectures from his students’ perspective. What knowledge do they have coming into class? What is the best way to make sure the overall message of the lecture comes across and is not obscured by the factual details?
Papers for class discussion are chosen for the rigor of their experimental logic and significance. They can be drawn from the current issues of the leading journals in the field, or can be classic papers that are still relevant decades after their publication. One of Ferguson’s favorite papers is a 1914 Science paper summarizing the results of experiments that showed that sex-linked genes are carried on the X chromosome.
“None of the experiments are described in the paper, and it’s fun for the students to work out the experiments at the board,” he said. “The paper always sparks animated discussion, even though it’s been almost a century since its publication.”
Overall, Ferguson teaches the essential knowledge in his field, but also tries to make sure students are able to understand how that knowledge was obtained, to critically evaluate new findings and to communicate their ideas to others.
Teaching at Chicago is a particular joy for Ferguson. “I’ve never had disinterested students here,” he said. “Many students are outstanding, and the best ones are out of this world.”