Yale Professor Receives $1 Million Grant to Make Science More Interesting to Undergraduate Students

A Yale chemistry professor, Alanna Schepartz, has received a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to enrich undergraduate education in chemistry by creating courses that expose students to the excitement and creativity of cutting-edge research earlier in their college careers.

“Most undergraduates are seniors by the time they encounter the thrill of conducting or even reading about current, pioneering research,” Schepartz said. “They are turned off by slogging through three years of discoveries that are decades or centuries old. By that time, many are committed to other careers and lost forever from scientific enterprise. Worst of all, most students graduate with little appreciation of the role science plays in society.”

To help counteract this problem, Schepartz will use the HHMI grant to design a pair of lecture and laboratory courses - Chemical Biology and Chemical Biology Laboratory - that begin the second semester of the sophomore year. Chemical biology is one of the most exciting and fastest growing interdisciplinary fields in modern chemistry. Researchers in this area use techniques and principles of chemistry to understand and control biological processes.

In designing her courses, Schepartz also considered the reality that too few women go into academic research chemistry. Women, she said, earn fewer than 30 percent of Ph.D. degrees in chemistry from the top 50 chemistry departments in the United States and they make up only 11 percent of the faculty of those chemistry departments.

Her lecture course will provide a sophisticated survey of the field, complete with case studies and articles from primary literature. The laboratory course will be open-ended and research-driven, with publications, presentations and summer research. Graduate students and postdoctoral associates, many of them women, will mentor the undergraduates.

She hopes the classes will not only attract more students to research, but will enlighten others who will use the knowledge in other ways.

“The general public suffers deficits in scientific knowledge and, importantly, lacks knowledge of the way science is practiced,” Schepartz said. “Businesspeople, politicians, writers and health care professionals who understand current science practices and culture can help us create a more informed public.”

The HHMI invited 84 research universities to nominate faculty members. A panel of scientists and educators reviewed 150 nominees’ proposals and eventually selected 20 HHMI Professors at 19 universities in 13 states.

HHMI President Thomas Cech said research “is advancing at a breathtaking pace, but many university students are still learning science the same old way, by listening to lectures, memorizing facts and doing cookbook lab experiments that thousands have done before. We want to empower scientists at research universities to become more involved in breaking the mold and bringing the excitement of research to science education.” Cech is a biochemist who continued teaching undergraduates at the University of Colorado at Boulder even after he won a Nobel Prize.

Peter Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs at HHMI, said the teaching of undergraduates tends to be undervalued at research universities. “By rewarding great teaching and supporting a synergistic interaction between research and undergraduate education, we hope to sow seeds of a fundamental change in the culture of research universities,” he said. “We want the HHMI professors to demonstrate that active, productive scientists can be effective teachers too.” Bruns, a leading geneticist from Cornell University, also taught undergraduates throughout his research career.

The HHMI Professors also will participate in HHMI investigators’ scientific meetings at Institute headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland. They will serve as a resource for scientists striving to improve undergraduate education nationwide.

HHMI is a private philanthropy dedicated to biomedical research and science education. The Institute employs 324 investigators who conduct basic medical research in HHMI laboratories at 69 of the nation’s leading research centers and universities. Through its complementary grants program, HHMI supports science education in the United States and a select group of researchers abroad.

The HHMI press release can be found at: http://www.hhmi.org/preview/091802.html

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