Education for Every Generation

by | Dec 6, 2009

IGB + OLLI = Great Fun, By Golly!

Biomarker December 2009

IGB faculty members are not only advancing life sciences research and stimulating bio-economic development in the state of Illinois, they also are advancing and stimulating the minds of area residents age 50 and over, as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

OLLI is a national program with institutes in every state. The University of Illinois program was established three years ago and now has more than 500 members.

This past spring, IGB faculty team-taught the New Science of Genomic Biology, which got rave reviews from participants. That class was filled to capacity and had a waiting list, says Kathleen Holden, director of OLLI at the University.

The class speakers included Gene Robinson, on neural and behavioral plasticity; Nigel Goldenfeld, on using the genetic code to understand evolution; Brenda Wilson on how the vaginal microbial ecosystem impacts women’s health; and Jay Kesan, on the business of biotechnology. In each session the researchers explained how their work interfaced with genomics and how that was significant.

OLLI members enjoyed the variety of both instructors and subject matter.

“You learn something new every week,” says one OLLI member, Jean Paley, who took the genomics course and is planning on taking another IGB-taught course this fall.

Paley was skeptical about the need for OLLI at first. She felt that there were already so many opportunities for intellectual stimulation on campus there was no need for more. She has changed her tune. The difference, she says, is that OLLI classes are full of adults with life experience and curiosity, all of whom are thrilled to be there.

“The people attracted to OLLI are retired and have really active minds, they are fun to be in class with,” says Paley. “They think about things, ask interesting questions and stimulate interesting discussions.”

“It was an extraordinary course,” says Ira Lebenson, another OLLI participant. “We have some of the world’s best people giving the courses and it’s the latest information.”

OLLI director Holden credits Robinson, Swanlund Chair of entomology and theme leader at the IGB, with the idea of team teaching an OLLI course. Robinson says that he knew many faculty who are very good at explaining their research to the public and he saw this as a chance for them to do that.

“It worked beautifully,” he said.

“It’s a fantastic group of people,” says Robinson of the OLLI program. “Firstly because they are so hungry, so thirsty for new knowledge and secondly because they have so many sets of life experiences to engage with the material —this makes for some very lively and broad discussions. In other words, it’s a lot of fun.”

Jo Ann Cameron, who also taught in the course, is back for more in Spring 2010, coordinating “Spare Parts: The Science of Organ Regeneration.”

“I learned about the OLLI program last spring when I was invited to give a lecture on amphibian limb regeneration. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I found interacting with the most enthusiastic students I’ve seen in a long while very gratifying,” Cameron said. “Public outreach in science is extremely important and I’m pleased to organize a course that showcases some of the timely and seminal research in regeneration biology and medicine here at the University of Illinois.”

To learn more about the program, visit

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