Starkle Dream Up. Stephens College

Dr. Erin Sellner

Dr. Erin Sellner uses music to engage students in science courses 

Dr. Erin Sellner knew teaching Immunology at 8 o’clock in the morning would be tough, for her and the students.

So she turned to her favorite pastime and family’s lifeblood: music.

But there was more than entertainment in the songs Sellner played for her blurry-eyed students. There was a lesson.

Energy at 8 a.m.

Pink’s “You Make Me Sick” signaled a lecture on infectious diseases and vaccines while The Isley Brothers’ “Contagious” kicked off a discussion about the Zika virus epidemic. And what better way to usher in a lesson about cell signaling than Blondie’s “Call Me?”

“I try to use different modalities in my teaching,” said Sellner, an assistant professor of biochemistry in the School of Health Sciences. “That’s the way I get to be a bit creative and artsy like the rest of my family while still pulling it all back to my love for science.”

Sellner later posts the song along with the lecture online in a discussion thread titled “Beats by Dr. E.” She encourages her students to listen to the music while they study, hoping the songs will help trigger information about the subjects. She also posts articles about current advancements or research in science, showing students that what they are learning is tied to the world they live in. 

“I just find these subjects so fascinating that anything I can find to help pass it along is very much worth it to me,” Sellner said. “One of the things I really love about teaching is that moment when a student finally really, really gets it. I live for that moment.”

Sellner grew up in New Ulm, Minn., a town of about 13,200 people located 90 miles southwest of Minneapolis. Her father was a classically trained pianist and her mother, who had a master’s degree in music education, taught choir, band and general music at the local public schools. 

When she was in high school, Sellner and her family moved to Jefferson City.

Falling in love with science 

It appeared early on that Sellner would follow in her parents’ musical footsteps. She started on piano, later expanding her repertoire to include the oboe, alto-saxophone and tenor saxophone. Alhough she enjoyed music, Sellner wasn’t convinced it was her calling. 

Always a good student, Sellner challenged herself academically, taking as many Advanced Placement courses, including an advanced science course in ninth grade, as she could. And that’s where it happened.

“I fell head over heels in love with genetics,” Sellner said. “It was just so amazing how it explained inheritance and how you could predict inheritance.”

When she got home that night, Sellner couldn’t stop talking about genetics, and she hasn’t stopped since.

“It’s my lasting love,” she says. “It’s a case of once you find something that makes you that excited, you don’t waste your time on anything else.”

Sellner received a B.S. in Animal Science with minors in rural sociology and English from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She immediately went on to earn a Ph.D. in Animal Science from MU, with an emphasis in reproductive physiology and molecular genetics and a doctoral minor in college teaching.  

Before accepting a full-time position at Stephens last year, Sellner was teaching as an adjunct professor at Moberly Area Community College, William Woods University, Westminster College as well as at Stephens. This spring, she is teaching cell biology, immunology and biochemistry at Stephens and oversees the seniors’ capstone projects.

Sellner is grateful for the opportunity to put down roots at an all-women’s college.

The women's college experience 

“I really had no idea how amazing it would be in this kind of atmosphere,” she said. “It’s wonderful because there are young women in the hallways talking about science, and they come in and seek me out to have conversations about science!”

One thing Sellner noticed in the co-ed courses she taught before joining Stephens was male students often dominated the science labs while the women stood back, taking notes and watching.

“In our labs, everyone is touching everything,” Sellner said. “It’s amazing to see young women with their hands on pipettes, reading microbial plates and digging in. No one is complaining about the smell or anything else because there is no one to posture for. I feel so good about sending women out into the world who know what they know and aren’t afraid to share it.”

The student perspective

And the students find Sellner’s love for science, well, contagious.

“Dr. Sellner has a tremendous amount of passion for science and education, and it shows in her classroom,” said Dana Heggeman ’16, now a graduate student in Stephens’ Master of Physician Assistant Studies program. “She is constantly pushing students further into their studies, making them look past just memorizing the fact and into applying what they’ve learned to the real world.”

Hannah Fountain ’17 looks forward to Sellner’s lectures and labs because she knows she will leave the class enthused about a new topic in science.

“Dr. Sellner will draw dozens of diagrams and bring countless props to help make abstract concepts tangible,” Fountain said. “Dr. Sellner’s commitment to the success of her students shows us how to believe in ourselves. Dr. Sellner is everything that is truly great about Stephens College.”

While Sellner is devoted to her college students, she also knows the secret to increasing the number of women in science is to inspire them while they’re young. That’s why Sellner has worked hard to win grants to bring middle school girls to campus for Saturday Science at Stephens. She also advises Tri-Beta, the national biological honor society on campus, whose members take an active role teaching and mentoring the middle school girls.

Dr. Susan Muller, dean of the School of Health Sciences, is impressed with Sellner’s dedication to her students and the field of science.

“Dr. Sellner is an outstanding faculty member who is passionate about teaching and helping young women become interested in science,” she said. 

Following your own path 

Sellner embraces the notion that she isn’t the stereotypical science teacher and hopes her example inspires students to be themselves and follow their own paths.

“What I really love about Stephens is our students are engaged with their courses, and they are engaged with their professors,” Sellner said. “I am happy my students feel comfortable walking into my office to talk with me about coursework and other things. I’m here for them.”

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