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September 30, 2002
Volume 80, Number 39
CENEAR 80 39 pp. 32-33, 50
ISSN 0009-2347


SCIENCE'S WOW FACTOR GOES PREDOCTORAL
Students will benefit from Howard Hughes Medical Institute's $1 million grants to professors

SOPHIE L. WILKINSON, C&EN WASHINGTON

Some universities, high schools, and even elementary schools provide their students with marvelous science experiences. Often, however, students don't encounter the most appealing and rewarding aspects of science until they reach graduate school. In the meantime, the more tedious chores such as memorization and cookbook lab work may repel students who might have persevered with the subject if it were presented in a more engaging manner.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), a private philanthropic organization that supports biomedical research and science education, wants to improve the predoctoral science experience, with an emphasis on undergraduates. To that end, it has just awarded the first $1 million, four-year grants to 20 academic researchers, who will be designated HHMI Professors. The institute intends for the scientists to bring the creativity they have shown in the lab into the undergraduate classroom.

That will present a contrast to traditional undergraduate science education at research universities. Students at these institutions confront numerous challenges because "the culture of research universities tends to undervalue teaching," according to an HHMI statement. The students often have to take courses taught in large lecture halls by junior faculty, and their "interaction with prominent research scientists ranges from limited to nonexistent." In addition, "graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the sciences aren't trained or motivated to teach well."

About a year ago, HHMI set out to alter this landscape (C&EN, Oct. 22, 2001, page 58). The institute asked 84 research universities to nominate tenured professors with active research programs who could "break the mold in science education and strengthen the ties between researchers and undergraduates." The 150 nominees were evaluated by a panel of scientists and educators. Half of the 20 HHMI Professors selected by the panel have ties to chemistry.

Stephen A. Barkanic, HHMI program director for undergraduate science education, says the researchers have "committed to a major expansion in their involvement with undergraduates, through teaching, research, mentoring, curriculum development, and creation of new undergraduate teaching tools." He adds that, "by involving postdocs and graduate students in these projects, the professors will also be helping to groom the faculty of tomorrow and enable them to become proficient teachers as well as researchers." The awardees will meet once a year to share their experiences and methods.

HHMI's goal is to attract more students to science careers, particularly from underrepresented groups, including minority and disadvantaged students, as well as first-generation college-goers. "Another goal is to fundamentally change how and what students are taught so that their undergraduate years are spent productively and that they are learning about and experiencing science as it is and will be done, rather than as it was done 20 years ago," Barkanic says.

THE HHMI professors plan to effect these changes in numerous ways. For example, Mary E. Lidstrom, a professor of chemical engineering and microbiology at the University of Washington, will use her HHMI grant to extend and expand a project funded by the National Science Foundation to teach biology to engineers.

The impetus behind the project is the increase in interdisciplinary research across the engineering/biology boundary, fueled by the genomics revolution, nanotechnology, and other emerging fields, says Lidstrom, who is also an associate dean for new initiatives in engineering (see also page 36).

The course at the core of Lidstrom's project teaches biology from an engineering point of view, "with nature as the designer and evolution as the design tool," she says. The class takes concepts familiar to engineers and relates them to something in biology. For instance, "when we explain information transfer in a cell, we have students outline how a computer processes information and then make the analogy to how the cell processes information. The hard disk is like the genome, and the files are like genes."

With the HHMI funding, Lidstrom and her colleagues will teach the class three quarters per year instead of one quarter. The team will work on other ways to bring biology into the engineering curriculum. They'll share the curricular materials they develop through engineering education journals and the Web. And they plan to develop a website where undergraduates seeking research experience can identify faculty willing to take them on.

Hilary A. Godwin, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Northwestern University, plans to reach out to undergraduates early. She will be teaching a course that starts African American and Hispanic students off in the summer before their freshman year and continues in their first year of college. They will join her in investigating lead levels in soil in Chicago's neighborhoods.

Louisiana State University chemistry professor Isiah M. Warner is taking the long view with his project, which will improve learning habits starting in elementary school. "Most students come into college knowing how to study science by rote memorization. They have no idea how to study to understand material," says Warner, who is also vice chancellor for strategic initiatives.

Warner and adjunct chemistry professor Saundra Y. McGuire will teach new learning methods to undergraduates, who will apply their skills doing lab research. Those students will then be trained to teach what they've learned to high school students, who in turn will pass the knowledge on to elementary school students. "Then we'll track the elementary students and see if a higher percentage majors in science, math, or engineering," Warner says.

HHMI, too, will follow the progress of its first round of professors in order to determine how to develop its program in coming years.

FRESHMAN CLASS

First HHMI Professors Include Many Working In Chemistry

Among the 20 newly chosen Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professors are the following researchers who work in chemically related fields.

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UC SANTA CRUZ PHOTO

Manuel Ares Jr., professor and chair of molecular, cell, and developmental biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, studies the mechanisms and regulation of genetic splicing.

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U OF WASHINGTON PHOTO

Mary E. Lidstrom, professor of chemical engineering and microbiology at the University of Washington, works on the metabolic engineering of bacteria to develop processes for hazardous waste mitigation.

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UCLA PHOTO

Utpal Banerjee, professor and chair of molecular, cell, and developmental biology at UC Los Angeles, focuses on the molecular basis of neuronal pattern formation.

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EMORY PHOTO

David G. Lynn, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Chemistry & Biology at Emory University, researches supramolecular self-assembly and molecular evolution.

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VANDERBILT PHOTO

Ellen Fanning, Stevenson Professor of Molecular Biology at Vanderbilt University, explores the molecular details of mechanisms that control DNA replication in mammalian cells.

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U OF ILLINOIS PHOTO

Yi Lu, associate professor of chemistry, biochemistry, and biophysics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, examines the role of metal ions in biological systems such as proteins and enzymes.

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NORTHWESTERN PHOTO

Hilary A. Godwin, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Northwestern University, is working on the roles of calcium and metals in neurological signaling and development.

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YALE PHOTO

Alanna Schepartz, professor of chemistry and of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University, concentrates on the chemical biology of macromolecular recognition.

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UCLA PHOTO

Robert B. Goldberg, professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology at UCLA, studies the molecular and genetic aspects of plant development.

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LSU PHOTO

Isiah M. Warner, Boyd Professor and Philip W. West Professor of Chemistry at Louisiana State University, is improving the chemical, mathematical, and instrumental methodology for studying complex chemical systems.



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