Professor Elmendorf (COL) on Georgetown, Life, and “Work That’s Worth It”

By Shelby Gresch, SFS'22​​
March 27, 2020

In March 2020, just days before Spring Break, in the thick of midterms and projects, fourteen students gathered in the Red House for the second Dinner Series event of the semester with Professor Heidi Elmendorf (COL). 

In going around the table for introductions, it became clear that Professor Elmendorf has a special way of connecting with her students (even though she primarily teaches Foundations of Biology, an intro-lecture with over a hundred and fifty students); nearly all in attendance were studying some sort of biology and had taken her class. It also quickly became clear that the students weren’t just there to learn about Elmendorf’s impressive research or talk about infectious disease. 

Professor Elmendorf has been teaching at Georgetown for twenty-one years, and in that time, she has done remarkable research on global health, launched the Regent’s STEM Scholars Program to support first-generation students in STEM, and founded the HUB for Equity and Innovation in Higher Education. She has won numerous teaching and service awards, and acts as Senior Advisor to the President on Equity in Education. Professor Elmendorf has combined her passion for teaching and equity work. Perhaps this is what makes her so special to her students. She is completely committed to not just their academic success, but their belonging. 

It makes sense that her students had so many questions beyond parasitic Giardia. One of the first questions posed was about Professor Elmenforf’s experience as a woman in STEM. From there, the conversation dove deeper into balancing life and work, changing a system for the better, and navigating a world that is systematically flawed. How do you stay driven? How do you find mentors? How has Georgetown changed?

Did Professor Elmendorf have answers for all of these questions? Yes, but many of them would surprise you. The theme, it seems, is being able to forage your own paths and “leave your lane.” When asked about being a woman in STEM, Elmendorf highlighted how she refused to choose her work over her family and instead brought her daughter to conferences, pushing people to be more accepting of mothers in STEM and serving as a role model for younger female scientists. When asked about mentors, she recalled how a lot of the advice she received was actually bad advice; sometimes it’s better to do things your own way. And when asked about work-life balance and how she does so many things, she admitted that you simply can’t have it all. She reflected on sacrifices and choices she had to make about work and family – leaving the research world for a while, working long nights – and encouraged students to find better balance than she had had. She reminded us all that life is long and there will be many opportunities to explore and develop new interests and even careers. In the end, recognizing her ambitious audience, the conclusion she offered was this:

“If you’re going to work all the time, it better be work that’s worth it.” 

This seems remarkably fitting given Professor Elmendorf’s tireless work toward equity in higher education. In her own words, she loves people and so she “teaches students (not biology)” and uses her own privilege to advocate for others. If that’s not work that’s worth it, I don’t know what is. 

This lesson is also an important reminder for students in all stages of life, though. The question of what we dedicate our time to is a big one, especially in college, and worth thinking about beyond our day-to-day schedules. Are you spending your energy on what’s important to you? Making your own path in the world? Using your privilege for good? Just a few things to consider courtesy of Heidi Elmendorf.  

Oh, and if she were a lab-instrument, Professor Elmendorf would be a microfuge. There’s a brand called Eppendorf. Very punny.

Stay tuned for more Dinner Series to come! Students can join the Red House Student Network listserv here to be the first to receive information about signups and stay up to date about all upcoming Red House events. You can also visit our Facebook page for event updates from the Red House.

If you are a faculty member who would like to share your work or join our conversations around contemporary issues in higher education, please email the Red House at