Andrée Elliott, Ph.D.
Written by Kate Gronewald
Photographed by Randy Mallory
Dr. Andrée Elliott rushed to class to prepare to teach her biology students, only to discover quickly that this was no ordinary day. Today, as a royal gesture of gratitude, Elliott’s students presented her with a pipe cleaner wand to officially crown her "Queen of Genetics."
The extended pipe cleaner now hangs in her office, dangling above her head with an orb of short fuzzy appendages bursting into a bloom at its end, piquing curiosity about this room and the woman sitting across the desk. Given the sense of serenity in the office, the wand’s odd shape ironically resembles a piece of lab paraphernalia: a fly napping wand, the device typically soaked in an anesthetic mixture to sedate fruit flies before microscopic observation.
The pipe cleaner creation is more than a bit strange. However, after spending two minutes talking to Elliott, there is not only an explanation, but also an unusually calming presence that fills the room amidst the earthy plants and nature photos. It’s as if suddenly this associate professor of biology exudes the same sort of blissful vibes put off by a childhood best friend – comfort, fun, calm.
Elliott is often found buzzing around the Glaske Center for Science, Engineering and Technology, zeroing in on any student who passes her in the hallways, seeking her help or just stopping by to chat.
A longer chat with Elliott reveals two key motivators that fuel her: faith and students. She explains her journey to LETU as God-directed and her work here God-inspired. In 2003, after years teaching science at a Christian high school and part-time labs at a community college in Dallas, she felt God was planting a seed for her to teach at a Christian university.
“One Sunday out of the blue I felt the need to look at LeTourneau’s website, and there was a position available for a biology instructor,” Elliott said. “Looking back, I see God’s direction clearly. I recently reread a journal of mine and witnessed how God directed me here in every step.”
Elliott moved to Longview and began finding her niche in the LETU biology department. In 2005, she earned her Ph.D. in molecular biology from Texas Woman’s University and now applies her knowledge to groundbreaking research in alternative fuels.
She conducts research on the microbial production of biodiesel, which means she is working to create diesel fuel by genetically engineering bacteria. While scientists have extracted oil from algae, Elliott was inspired to work with what she knows – cells (specifically, E. coli cells).
Outside of hours spent in the lab, her research includes working with industry professionals, reading up about diesel engines and attending the National Biodiesel Conference.
Elliott received a 2010-2011 Welch Foundation Grant to fund student involvement in her research project. Grants like this allow students to take a hands-on approach to what they are learning, providing opportunities to use what they have learned in research to develop new technologies. This kind of education is what matters most to Elliott.
“I’m constantly reminded that student interaction… this is why I’m here,” Elliott said. “This research is a win-win for students. They gain experience and go on to earn internships and advanced degrees in molecular biology all over the country, around the world.”
Elliott genuinely gets to know her students. She routinely invites them over to her house to hang out around a bonfire and eat jambalaya.
She especially relates to students who are undecided about their majors. Elliott, too, had to try out more than a few fields to find the right fit. (To name three tries, she majored in horticulture for one day, earned an undergraduate degree in geology and worked as a technical writer at Texas Instruments.) And then, one day in graduate school, she made a life changing, albeit non-scientific, discovery.
“I found biology courses,” Elliott said. “Then I taught one lab and fell in love with teaching.”
Looking back, it’s clear.
“I grew up in New Orleans and remember sitting in the back of my parents’ car waiting for a parade to start one day, and I was reading my biology textbook for fun,” Elliott said.
And now, who knows, she may turn her lab into a diesel fueling station one day.
“It’s fun to have a dream,” the Queen of Genetics said.
NOW Spring 2011