Sean Carroll, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

TITLE: Vice President, Science Education

FUNDING AREAS: Science education

CONTACT: carrolls@hhmi.org, 608-262-7898

IP TAKE: Carroll is a renowned evolutionary biologist and National Book Award finalist interested in seeing creative ideas that will make biology more accessible to a widespread and diverse public.

PROFILE: In an age when many people mourn the decline of the "public intellectual," Sean B. Carroll exemplifies the idea. An immunologist by training who has gained renown as an evolutionary biologist, he spreads his ideas not only in the laboratory but also in a regular New York Times column and an occasional contribution to the public television series NOVA. In 2010, he took on another project to help promote the role of science in modern society—heading the science education initiatives at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

In a way, the position of vice president for science education brings Carroll full circle. He fell in love with nature at an early age, thanks to his collection of snakes and the influence of National Geographic and episodes of Wild Kingdom. He also was a superior student. Carroll finished his degree in biology at Washington State University in St. Louis in two years. When he completed his Ph.D. in immunology at Tufts University, he was just 22 years old.

Despite Carroll's focus on immunology, he had a growing interest in the role that genetics and evolution play in the development of an organism. He calls himself "a lucky SOB" for entering his academic career just as the field of evolutionary biology was taking off.

Lucky or not, Carroll soon earned renown on his own terms through his study of animals like fruit flies and butterflies. His colleagues now place him among the world's best evolutionary biologists. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and counts the Stephen Jay Gould Prize and the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science among his many awards. He has even provided popular accounts of his field in books like Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo-Devo and Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species, which was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for non-fiction.

Even as his own career has ascended to rarefied heights, Carroll also has found ways to stay connected with the next generation of evolutionary biologists. Concurrent to his role at Howard Hughes, Carroll is also a Professor of Molecular Biology, Genetics, and Medical Genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, undergraduates, and even middle schoolers work with him in his lab there.

"You usually try to get their hands dirty doing something fun and interesting," he told one profiler of his mentorship program with local schools. "And almost anything with DNA thrills kids."

So it's only natural that Carroll now oversees the largest private science education effort in the nation. His portfolio includes programs that support scientists of all stripes—from highly trained researchers to curious adolescents. But the wide variety of programs should not give the impression that funding is distributed indiscriminately. In fact, the foundation generally does not accept unsolicited proposals. Rather, Carroll's group announces the goals it wants to accomplish and then reviews proposalssometimes by invitation only — to accomplish them.

On the widest scale, Carroll's goal is to broaden understanding of biology and make the field more accessible to groups that are underrepresented. From there, your best bet may be to channel the professor's famous love for thinking outside the box and forging your own path for the love of science.

"I want to help other people have as much fun as I have," Carroll says of his post at the institute. "That requires thinking about how to foster creativity and innovation on a larger scale. We all need inspiration, but how do we nourish curiosity and inspire an interest in science, particularly among young people?"

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