Blue Devil of the Week: A Curious Researcher and Dedicated Teacher

Surname: Emily Ozdowski

Position: Instructor in the Duke Department of Biology

Years at Duke: 15

What she does at Duke: At high school in Ringgold, Virginia, Emily Ozdowski read an article about the genetics of schizophrenia in a Virginia Tech magazine and knew right away that she wanted to become a researcher.

That curiosity eventually landed her at Duke as a postdoctoral researcher in 2006.

Today, as an instructor in the Department of Biology, Ozdowski continues to ask important and interesting questions for the sake of her own research, while helping the next generation of researchers discover their passions in science.

Every spring semester, Ozdowski teaches a class that puts junior and senior-level undergraduates in the driver’s seat of their own research projects, using zebrafish and mussels in the classroom to explore their interests. The students work with Ozdowski to determine the subject of their research, exploring topics such as climate change or the affect of chemicals excreted by the human metabolism into water sources on mussels.

“I love the curiosity factor,” Ozdowski said. “The fact that we can brainstorm these amazing connections and look up all sorts of new information is a great way to learn to test a hypothesis with lab experiments. Whether it’s super focused on human health or ecology, in this lab, we’re able to ask some fun questions and go try to figure out the answer.”

Outside the classroom, Ozdowksi works with Dr. Nina Sherwood to research Autosomal Dominant Hereditary Spastic Paraparesis (ADHSP), a rare genetic neurological disorder that causes muscle weakness and tightness in the lower half of the body.

Using fruit flies, which have a similar gene to humans that causes the disorder, Ozdowski studies how neurons signal to muscles and how glial cells help make those developmental connections.

“I wanted to do something that was both basic science but also could have human application, so the fruit fly really appealed to me all the way since undergrad and graduate school,” she said.

Best advice received: Ozdowski’s parents taught her that you have to find the places where you’ll be most happy. That became important when Ozdowski received her doctorate from the University of Virginia and contemplated what was next.

Ozdowski came to Duke, where she’s been ever since.

“When you’re looking for either a school or a job or the next stage of life, having it be a good fit for you is just as important as prestige or money. I have been so lucky to find the things that fit my personality,” she said. “That is really important for happiness.”

Something unique in her workspace: Working with fruit flies in her research, Ozdowski naturally has all sorts of insect-themed décor in her office, including from attending many of the annual Drosophila Research Conferences, affectionately known in the field as “The Fly Meeting.”Ozdowski's office is decorated with photos, drawings and other depictions of fruit flies, a main player in her research.  Photo courtesy of Ozdowski.

“My office has fruit fly postcard art, jewelry, ornaments, and toys that I’ve collected over the years,” Ozdowski said. “My daughter loves art and has given me paintings of insects to decorate my shelves.”

What she loves about Duke: Ozdowski’s favorite part of her job is interacting with students, who come from all over the country and world but whose curious and creative minds led them to her class.

She has the opportunity to encourage them to explore why science appeals to them.

“I get to design the courses that I wish I’d had,” she said. “So if there’s something that I didn’t get to do as an undergraduate, then it’s really fun to be able to have that freedom here.”

When she’s not at work, she likes to: Since she came to Duke in 2006, Ozdowski has enjoyed pickup volleyball at the outdoor court on East Campus with a group of faculty, staff, students and Durham residents.Emily Ozdowski routinely plays volleyball at the East Campus outdoor courts, and can be seen here setting the ball.  Photo courtesy of Alexandra Ozdowski.

“It’s a great group of friends and just friendly competition,” she said.

Lessons learned during the pandemic:

Teaching lab-based classes during the pandemic has meant plenty of lessons in flexibility. With COVID-19 forcing quarantine, Ozdowski has had to learn to adjust her teaching, hold frequent makeup labs and instruct students while they’re socially distanced across two different classrooms.

“We’re all more flexible than we realize or we can be more flexible than we gave ourselves credit for before,” Ozdowski said. “Since the pandemic, it seems like almost all of the classes are more laid back. We’ve all been forced to become resilient and flexible, so whatever happens we’re going to make it work.”

Is there a colleague at Duke who has an intriguing job or goes above and beyond to make a difference? Nominate that person for Blue Devil of the Week.

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