Public Release: 

Undergrads hooked on research

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

What's the most potent stimulant available on university campuses today? "The excitement of scientific discovery," says Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) professor Jo Handelsman.

"The undergraduate science classroom can be an uninspiring, boring, even a hostile environment," Handelsman observes. "How can college and university professors motivate and engage students in science, especially freshmen and students from disadvantaged backgrounds? The excitement of scientific research and discovery is a powerful stimulant that can spark the fireworks of curiosity in even the most disinterested students."

On Sunday, February 20, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Handelsman, a plant pathologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Graham Hatfull, a University of Pittsburgh microbiologist, and 14 other HHMI professors describe the educational revolution they're leading at research universities across the country.

The revolution is taking many forms. For example:

  • Hilary Godwin, Northwestern University, worries over the fact that so few minorities take freshman chemistry. She is changing that by designing a course based on her own research into the molecular mechanism of lead poisoning. She uses it to engage entering freshmen the summer before they start college and throughout their first year at Northwestern. The research project "is near and dear to my heart, but also is desperately needed¡Xto map out soil lead levels in neighborhoods in the city of Chicago," Godwin says.

  • Bob Goldberg, University of California, Los Angeles, wants everyone¡Xscience majors and non-science majors alike¡Xto understand how research is done. Undergraduates who are not planning careers in science need to understand how science affects their daily lives, says Goldberg. He reaches from Los Angeles all the way to Japan with a hands-on, research ¡Vbased exchange. Students from both countries work in his lab, manipulating the genes that tell a seed what to become. They also discuss the social, legal, and ethical issues that arise from emerging genetic technologies.

  • Graham Hatfull, University of Pittsburgh, turns high school students into phage-hunters. Working with soil samples from backyards, barnyards, and the monkey pit at the Bronx Zoo, they have identified more than 30 new bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria. The genomic information learned from the phages is so significant that Hatfull and his high school students were co-authors with HHMI investigator William R. Jacobs on a research paper in the journal Cell.

  • Darcy Kelley, Columbia University, and colleagues are running a course called "Frontiers of Science" that every entering student, science-oriented or not, is required to take. It covers hot topics in science, including the origins of the universe, the future of the planet, molecular self-assembly at the nanoscale, and the evolution of language.

  • Richard Losick, Harvard University, puts freshmen from disadvantaged backgrounds right into research labs, where they learn how science is really done by doing it. He also has developed Web-based animations and video modules for teaching molecular biology concepts and procedures.

    Convinced that undergraduate science education needed transformation, as recommended in the National Research Council's report, Bio2010, HHMI named its first 20 HHMI professors in 2002, giving each one $1 million over four years and challenging them to do something innovative to make science more engaging for undergraduates. The HHMI professors are leading research scientists who also are deeply committed to improving science education. Their innovative approaches to teaching are infusing undergraduate science with the excitement and rigor of scientific research. The program is becoming a model for fundamental reform of the way undergraduate science is taught at research universities.

    "An objective of the HHMI professors program was to develop a group of scientist-educators at research universities around the country who are leaders in research, who also excel in undergraduate teaching," said Peter J. Bruns, HHMI vice president for grants and special programs.

    A competition for a new group of HHMI professors was just announced this month. Up to 20 research professors will be chosen after review by a panel of scientists and educators. Each will receive $1 million over four years to bring research and innovations in teaching into the undergraduate classroom. Current HHMI professors will be eligible to compete for renewal grants to continue the most successful elements of their programs, to develop institutional support for their educational innovations after HHMI support ends, and to disseminate their curriculum or materials to other universities. For more information on the new competition, see

    Hatfull, a researcher who brings not only undergraduates, but high school students to work in his lab, believes that exposing students early to true scientific discovery will capture their attention and rev up their enthusiasm for science. Hatfull, Handelsman and others will chronicle their educational experiments as HHMI professors, as part of part of the AAAS topic track, Teaching and Learning in Science. Symposium Title: When is a Classroom Not a Classroom? Transformation in Undergraduate Education

    When: 10:30 a.m.-noon, Sunday, February 20, 2005

    Speakers: Ron Hoy, Cornell University
    Darcy Kelley, Columbia University
    David Lynn, Emory University
    Graham Walker, MIT
    Isiah Warner, Louisiana State University
    Jo Handelsman, University of Wisconsin-Madison

    Symposium Title: Rising to the Challenge: Scientific Educators and Educator Scientists

    When: 1:45-4:45 p.m., Sunday, February 20, 2005

    Speakers: Peter Felten, Vanderbilt University (for Ellen Fanning)
    Sarah Elgin, Washington University in St. Louis
    Graham Hatfull, University of Pittsburgh
    Rebecca Richards-Kortum, University of Texas, Austin Utpal Banerjee, University of California, Los Angeles
    Hilary Godwin, Northwestern University
    Bob Goldberg, University of California, Los Angeles
    Manny Ares, University of California, Santa Cruz
    Yi Lu, University of Illinois
    Richard M. Losick, Harvard University

    The Howard Hughes Medical Institute was established in 1953 by the aviator-industrialist. HHMI's principal mission is conducting basic biomedical research, which it carries out in collaboration with universities, medical centers and other research institutions throughout the United States. Its more than 300 investigators, along with a scientific staff of more than 3,000, work at these institutions in Hughes laboratories. The Institute's Janelia Farm Research Campus, now under construction in Loudoun County, Virginia, will be a unique biomedical research complex where resident and visiting scientists can collaborate on cutting-edge, cross-disciplinary projects. HHMI has a philanthropic grants program that is strengthening science education and training, from elementary school through graduate and medical school. It also supports the work of biomedical researchers in many countries around the globe.

    HHMI is one of the largest philanthropies in the world, with an endowment of more than $13 billion. Its headquarters are located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.


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