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November 14, 2017

Biology Professor Heidi Elmendorf Gives Rehearsal Lecture for National Teaching Award

Associate Professor of Biology Heidi Elmendorf gave a lecture on “The Moral Relativism of Microbes: To Be or Not to Be Virulent” to a full audience last month as a finalist for the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching.

Biology Professor Heidi Elmendorf Gives Rehearsal Lecture for National Teaching Award

Professor Elmendorf is one of three finalists competing for this prestigious honor, which is one of only a few national teaching awards for higher education in the United States. “Although this is technically a dress rehearsal for the lecture I’m supposed to give on Monday at Baylor University, for me, this is the most meaningful of the talks because this is the community in which I have learned to be a teacher,” said Elmendorf. “This is my crowd. This is my family.”


Elmendorf’s Foundations in Biology course fills up one of the largest lecture halls on campus each year and is required for all Georgetown biology majors. Elmendorf also teaches the biology of global health gateway class; Science Pedagogy: Principles and Practice; the senior seminar in biology; and the Research Intensive Senior Experience.

In addition to her course load, Elmendorf directs the Regents Science Scholars Program, which is funded by a $1.3 million investment from alumnus Joe Zimmel (C’75). The program is designed to expand opportunities for students from traditionally underserved communities interested in studying science.

This is not the first time that Elmendorf has been honored for her excellence in the classroom. She is the winner of Georgetown University’s 2016 Bunn Award for Faculty Excellence, a two-time winner of the Dorothy Brown Award (2005 and 2016), a two-time winner of the Georgetown Academic Council Award (2011 and 2017), and the 2014 winner of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s District of Columbia Professor of the Year.


The Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching honors outstanding professors in the United States based on their distinguished scholarship and proven track records as extraordinary teachers with positive, inspiring, and long-lasting effects on their students.

As a finalist, Elmendorf has received $15,000 from Baylor University, as well as $10,000 for her home department to help foster the development of new pedagogies and curriculum in biology. Each finalist is expected to give a series of lectures at their home universities and a final lecture at Baylor University to cap their months of research and preparation. The winner, who will be announced in the spring of 2018, will receive a $250,000 award and $25,000 for their home department.


Though Elmendorf has studied microbes for years, she chose to focus her lecture on their peculiar relationship with humans. In her talk, Elmendorf explored how a better understanding of the dynamics between microbes and their hosts offers lessons about the very basics of evolutionary biology and their applications to medicine and human health.

Elmendorf explained that microbes can be capricious about their virulence within a single human, choosing to enhance the host’s life in one moment and threatening its life in the next.

“Microbes do good and bad things. For most people, they won’t do anything evil, but in others they’ll only occasionally, and upon provocation, cause damage,” Elmendorf said. “That, in a nutshell, is the moral relativism that I am here to talk about.”

Professor Elmendorf gave her final lecture to a panel of distinguished judges on Monday, October 30, 2017, at Baylor University.