Sharing a Passion for Research

Jill Rulfs

Phytoestrogens are estrogen-like compounds found in more than 300 types of plants, including beans, seeds, and grains. In the form of over-the-counter supplements, they are marketed to menopausal women as safe alternatives to traditional hormone replacement therapy, which can increase the risk of breast cancer. Whether or not phytoestrogens are safer than estrogen is still the subject of considerable research in a number of laboratories, including that of Jill Rulfs, associate professor of biology and biotechnology at WPI.

Rulfs works with undergraduate and graduate students to explore the properties of a number of phytoestrogens. To date, this research has shown that some compounds may actually prevent the proliferation of cells and the slowing of cell death that are characteristic of cancers. The research has also made clear that the various compounds that fall under the phytoestrogen umbrella vary considerably and most have not been well characterized. Rulfs and her students are working to sort out these compounds and to test their effects on breast epithelial tissue individually and in various combinations.

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From the Laboratory to the Classroom

Cutting-edge detective work, the research is an excellent example of how science and technology can be used to solve important problems and make a difference in people's lives. Those are ideals that Rulfs pursues in the laboratory and in the classroom. Over the years, Rulfs has been involved with a number of innovative educational programs that have sought to make science and engineering education more effective and engaging, and to help cultivate tomorrow's scientists and engineers.

A former public school teacher, Rulfs participated in Partnerships Implementing Engineering Education (PIEE), a collaboration between WPI students and teachers in the Worcester Public Schools. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the innovative three-year project, which involved 18 graduate fellows, 33 public school teachers, and 1,000 elementary school students, introduced engineering into the curricula for kindergarten through grade six. Rulfs has also served as a consultant for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Research Institute on K-12 education and co-edited Biotechnology: The Technology of Life, a sourcebook for K-12 classroom teachers.

Rulfs has also been involved with a number of innovations in college-level science instruction. Most recently, she was a principal investigator for "The Connected Lab," a program sponsored by the Davis Educational Foundation in which students in undergraduate biology labs at WPI used clickers to enter data from experiments and share it with other students. The innovative use of the clicker technology was shown to improve student achievement and enhance teaching during science labs.

Learn More about This Story

  • In addition to her research and teaching activities, Jill Rulfs has for many years directed WPI's Pre-Health Professions Program, which provides guidance and support to students interested in using their WPI education as a stepping stone to careers in medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine.
  • Rulfs co-authored a paper on Partnerships Implementing Engineering Education that was presented at the 2007 annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education, the nation's premier organization dedicated to promoting excellence in engineering education. It was one of nine papers written by 14 WPI faculty and staff members and one student that were presented at that year's conference.
  • "The Connected Lab" project that Rulfs helped oversee received a Campus Technology Innovators Award from Campus Technology magazine in 2008. The magazine covered the program in a feature story in its August 2008 issue.
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