Bill Wallace Takes Off

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Bill Wallace Takes Off
Dina ElBoghdady

This September, for the first time in 26 years, Bill Wallace is not at GDS welcoming students to one of his High School science classes. Right about now, he and his Swedish-born wife, Eva, are probably settling into their apartment in Stockholm before taking off for a visit to South Africa, where their oldest son now lives with his family.

In retirement, Bill is basically doing what he could not do during the confines of the school year. But calling it “retirement” gives the wrong impression, he said, for it implies an end to his teaching career when in fact he plans to remain quite active in the science education field. In the years to come, expect to see Bill launch all sorts of ventures and collaborations that build upon the work he’s done with GDS students.

“I like to think of it as retiring to something rather than retiring from something,” Bill said.

Before GDS, a Lab and a Crew

Bill, a neuroscientist, trained as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate Paul Greengard before accepting a faculty position in 1986 at what is now known as the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. During his six years there, Bill pursued his interest in the molecular biology of the human brain. When his wife, a pediatric oncologist, accepted a job in Washington, Bill went on to work for another six years at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he ran a lab and churned out research on Alzheimer’s disease.

Then he got restless.

“As a researcher, you reach a certain point where you’re taken out of the lab to direct other people,” Bill said. “I had about half a dozen people in my lab, and I was directing research on their experiments instead of doing my own. I’m not the type to sit behind a desk, so I started thinking about a career change, about what I most enjoy doing.”

His fascination with designing and analyzing experiments combined with his love of teaching led him to apply for a job at GDS in 1998. “As part of the interview process, I spoke to a class about my research, and they asked such great questions,” Bill said. “I really got great vibes from GDS, and I knew immediately that’s where I wanted to be. I wanted to influence these kids and show them how fun science could be.”

Keevan Kearns ʼ23 said Bill’s work experience and his relationships with world-renowned scientists served as an inspiration to her throughout high school. “Talking about a disease like Alzheimer’s with a teacher who has published research papers on the topic and made discoveries is just an amazing opportunity,” said Keevan, a freshman at Pomona College who is considering a major in biology. “He helped me understand what it would actually be like and feel like to be a working scientist.”

Former GDS High School Principal C.A. Pilling credits Bill for introducing his students and the School to a more hands-on approach to science. “Bill's push for us to teach students how to 'think like a scientist' rather than just content has left a lasting mark on the science department's approach,”  said C.A., who is now an HS environmental teacher.

In 2012, Bill was honored with the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, an award that recognizes teachers nationwide who display deep knowledge of their subjects and an ability to motivate students. President Obama described Bill and his cohort as “the best of the best.”

Bill the Brainchild of Three New Classes

At GDS, Bill initially taught Advanced Placement Biology until the School stopped offering AP classes in 2018, a development that Bill applauded. He’d grown disillusioned with the course because of its emphasis on standardized testing and memorization at the expense of in-depth and hands-on learning. The types of classes he wanted to teach are the ones he eventually designed: Physiology, Research Methods in Biology, and Neuroscience (which he co-developed and co-taught with Director of Student Life and Wellness Bobby Asher, see page XX.)

Physiology focused on a different disease each year–everything from sickle cell anemia to HIV to Covid. Bill would teach the students how to use clinical reasoning to diagnose a disease, as a physician would; how to gather data about a disease and spot trends the way an epidemiologist would; and how to apply the science they learned toward making the world a better place. At year’s end, for instance, he might ask students to create a persuasive video that motivates people to get vaccinated for Covid.

Thomas Heist ʼ19 took the class his junior year and still marvels at Bill’s devotion to it. “He not only designed the curriculum, but he wrote his own textbook for the class and designed his own lab experiments,” said Thomas, who is pursuing a PhD in tumor biology at Georgetown University.

Thomas enjoyed the lab portion of the class so much that he asked to work with Bill on an eight-week-long experiment the summer leading up to his senior year. The experiment, an extension of work done in class, involved treating flatworms with various antiparasitic drugs and watching their ability to regenerate after an injury. “That summer, Bill gave me what felt like my first meaningful scientific experience,” Thomas said. “He showed me how to read academic papers, how to justify results using previous research–basically all the scientific skills that I use every day and will continue using for the rest of my career.”

Ben Hoffman ’09 said Bill was the first teacher he connected with in a meaningful way about his love of science. “It’s been a very special relationship for me,” said Ben, a physician-scientist who completed a PhD in neuroscience, Bill’s specialty. “I bounced ideas off him about my course of study in grad school, and to this day, he remains a tremendous resource for me.”

Ben, now a cardiology fellow in California, particularly admires Bill’s teaching style.  “He has the ability to communicate very complicated scientific concepts in a way that makes them feel accessible to anyone,” Ben said. “As I’ve progressed in my career, and had the opportunity myself to teach, I realized how special and unique a trait that is.”

For his part, Bill credits the students with keeping him young. “I had to keep up with what they were doing and what they were reading. I was always learning along with them,” said Bill, who also coached GDS men’s JV soccer from 2000 to 2005, starting when his son, Steve ʼ04, played on the team.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Bill considers himself lucky because he pulled off a career switch that he found meaningful and energizing. The camaraderie he developed with his co-workers and the charge he got from working with intellectually curious students keeps him wanting more.

Bill's travels, taking him far away from GDS.

“I would like to continue actively promoting science education in the DC-area schools,”  Bill said. To that end, he’s working to establish a DC chapter of the National Science Teachers Association and an alumni group consisting of DC teachers, like himself, who have previously won the presidential award honoring top science and math educators.

Through these groups and other collaborations, Bill would like to introduce neuroscience classes to more area high schools and model them after the one he taught with Bobby. (Bill taught the nuts and bolts of the brain while Bobby tackled how the brain affects mental health issues.) Bill also wants more students to learn science by doing science, which is why he’s toying with the idea of creating a nonprofit group that would encourage students to engage in more scientific research inside and outside the classroom, as he did in his Research Methods in Biology class.

Bill is no stranger to launching new initiatives. At GDS, he created a STEAM Conference Day that attracted hundreds of students from public and independent schools throughout the DC region. The event, held at GDS, featured talks from leaders in the science, technology, engineering, art and math fields. It also showcased special student-led projects, such as robotics investigations, and activities hosted by various science education organizations. Bill ran the event for years, calling it “a labor of love.”

“Looking back, it’s clear that teaching science at GDS is a dream,” Bill said. “The School is not scared of innovation. …We’re all so spoiled here.”

Bill Wallace Takes Off

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