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Ursula Goodenough

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Ursula Goodenough
Goodenough, 1998
BornMarch 16, 1943 (1943-03-16) (age 81)
New York City, New York
Alma materPh.D. Harvard University (1969)
M.A Columbia University (1965)
B.A. Barnard College (1963)
Known forAlgal research, Religious Naturalism, Epic of Evolution
Scientific career
FieldsCell biology
InstitutionsWashington University
Harvard University

Ursula W. Goodenough (born March 16, 1943) is a Professor of Biology Emerita at Washington University in St. Louis where she engaged in research on eukaryotic algae. She authored the textbook Genetics and the best-selling book The Sacred Depths of Nature and speaks regularly about religious naturalist orientation and evolution. She contributed to the NPR blog, 13.7: Cosmos & Culture, from 2009 to 2011.[1]

She currently serves as president of the Religious Naturalist Association. In 2023, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.[2]

Goodenough in Dharamsala, India with Richard Gere, Eric Lander and a Buddhist Bhikkhu
Goodenough in Dharamsala, India with the Dalai Lama
mating Chlamydomonas


Goodenough, daughter of Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough and Evelyn Goodenough Pitcher, earned a B.A. in Zoology from Barnard College in 1963, an M.A. in Zoology at Columbia University in 1965 and a Ph.D. in Biology at Harvard University in 1969.[3] She was an assistant and associate professor of biology at Harvard from 1971 to 1978 before moving to Washington University. She wrote three editions of a widely adopted textbook, Genetics. She served as president of The American Society for Cell Biology in 1984–1985, was elected to the Cellular and Developmental Biology section of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009,[4] was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology in 2013[5] and was awarded a Doctor of Letters Honoris Causa by the Meadville School of Theology in 2022. Since 2013, Goodenough has been listed on the Advisory Council of the National Center for Science Education.[6]

Goodenough joined the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) in 1989 and has served continuously on its council and as its president for four years. She has presented papers and seminars on science and religion to numerous audiences, co-chaired six IRAS conferences on Star Island, and serves on the editorial board of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.


Goodenough has written that women balancing the demands of raising children and developing a career need to understand that they can do both. She says that realizing that a child's development is influenced by many people in their lives other than their mother has helped her achieve both her personal and professional goals. She is the mother of five children: Jason, Mathea, Jessica, Thomas, and James – and has 9 grandchildren.

Goodenough's brothers are the solid-state physicist John B. Goodenough (1922–2023), who was the oldest recipient of the Nobel Prize at age 97, the anthropologist Ward Goodenough (1919–2013), and the cell biologist Daniel Goodenough (born 1945).


Goodenough taught a junior/senior level cell biology course at Washington University for many years. She also joined physicist Claude Bernard and earth-scientist Michael Wysession for 10 years in teaching a course called The Epic of Evolution directed at non-science majors. She has also taught graduate-level courses in microbial biology.

Dalai Lama[edit]

In 2002, Goodenough was a member of a five-scientist panel invited by the Mind and Life Institute as part of an ongoing series of seminars on Western science for Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and his inner circle of monk-scholars. Previous seminars explored particle physics and neuroscience. This was the Dalai Lama's first foray into cellular biology. Goodenough found him a quick study: "He's very interested in science and really wants to understand this stuff. We'd been told that he knew about DNA and proteins, but when I started it became clear that he had very little background. Of course, one is left to wonder how many of the world's leaders understand DNA and proteins." Goodenough was joined by scientists Stuart Kauffman, Steven Chu and Eric Lander. Goodenough was invited back to Dharamsala, India to lecture again in 2003.

Photo of Goodenough taken in 2014


Goodenough and colleagues have studied the molecular basis and evolution of life-cycle transitions in the flagellated green alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. They have identified genes in the mating-type (mt) locus and genes regulated by mt that control the transition between vegetative growth and gametic differentiation and zygote development. These include genes responsible for mate recognition, uniparental inheritance of chloroplast DNA, and gametic differentiation, allowing analysis of their function and their evolution during speciation. They have also elucidated structural features of ciliary motility and explored the potential for producing algal biodiesel as a transportation fuel.

Religious Naturalist Orientation[edit]

Goodenough is a prominent advocate of the religious naturalist (RN) orientation, which explores the religious potential of our science-based understandings of nature. In 1998 she wrote a widely-read book on the topic which has been extensively revised in a new 2003 edition , and she serves as president of the Religious Naturalist Association . Her recent RN presentations are listed here.


Founder’s Day Distinguished Faculty Award, Washington University, 1995; Senior Career Recognition Award, American Society for Cell Biology, 1999; Fellow, American Women in Science, 2009; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2009; Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology, 2013; Fellow, American Society for Cell Biology, 2017; Doctor of Letters Honoris Causa, Meadville School of Theology, 2022; Member, National Academy of Sciences, 2023


  1. ^ Goodenough's Contributions to NPR
  2. ^ "2023 NAS Election".
  3. ^ "Curriculum Vitae" (PDF). Washington University in St. Louis. Retrieved February 1, 2023.
  4. ^ Three elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009
  5. ^ Eighty-Seven Scientists Elected to the American Academy of Microbiology
  6. ^ "Advisory Council". ncse.com. National Center for Science Education. Archived from the original on 2013-08-10. Retrieved 2018-10-30.

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