Yale's Strobel Named "Million-Dollar Professor" for Science Teaching Innovation
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has named Scott Strobel, professor and newly appointed chair of the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale as one of its new HHMI Professors chosen for their extraordinary teaching, inspiration and mentoring of the next generation of science students.
Strobel will receive $1 million over four years from HHMI to implement a program of innovative science teaching ideas as an HHMI Professor. HHMI will provide the resources for Strobel, a biophysicist and biochemist, to take undergraduates “bio-prospecting” for promising natural products in the world’s rain forests. The students will then purify and analyze the compounds they collected and test them for potentially beneficial activity.
Strobel’s program will be an introductory science course for scientifically minded students, providing an engaging, hands-on learning experience that challenges students to think like working scientists and to have a personal stake in the outcome of their project.
“The scientists whom we have selected are true pioneers — not only in their research, but in their creative approaches and dedication to teaching,” said Thomas R. Cech, HHMI president. “We are hopeful that their educational experiments will energize undergraduate science education throughout the nation.”
The course Strobel proposed will have three parts. A spring semester course will lay groundwork in the science and technologies — evolution, ecology, and molecular and structural analysis. Spring break will be a working trek to a rain forest — the Amazon and New Zealand among the possible locations — to collect local branches and twigs with their associated microbes.
Upon return students will spend a rigorous summer session classifying their finds — true “unknowns” — and will begin to identify new bioactive compounds. The program is designed to have students face the questions and issues of handling specimens, and designing and using the procedures to characterize them. There will be no pre-packaged laboratory; rather there will be elbow-to-elbow investigation with faculty.
Strobel’s own research uses a multidisciplinary approach to understanding biologically critical reactions that are catalyzed by RNA: splicing of RNA and peptide bond formation in protein synthesis. His group employs technologies that include biochemistry, organic synthesis, enzyme kinetics, X-ray crystallography, and molecular biology. In addition to research awards, Strobel received the Dylan Hixon Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Natural Sciences from Yale in 2004
The students will get their own results and be a part of processing, and potentially publishing and patenting, any novel compounds discovered. Because it is highly likely that the research will not be completed by the end of the summer, the program is intended to provide students with a continuing project that can be transported to laboratories throughout the university for continuation of the work. In this way, it will enhance the experience of science for the students and faculty.
“To be manageable, the course will be limited to 10 to 12 students, all of whom must have some basic background in science. But, we are not necessarily looking for students intending to be science majors or pre-med,” said Strobel. “Interest level and commitment to succeeding in the program will be important factors in the selection.” Specifics of the selection process remain to be determined.
“Everyone who’s read Scott’s proposal was instantly struck by how remarkably innovative it is,” said William Segraves, Associate Dean for Science Education Yale College. “It integrates so many of Yale’s objectives for the enhancement of undergraduate education: hands-on scientific discovery, close contact with leading faculty, truly interdisciplinary perspectives, and first-hand experience of other lands and cultures.”
A mentor for the project is Strobel’s father, Gary Strobel at Montana State University, who discovered the bioactive compound taxol in a fungus that grows on yew trees. He and his colleagues found that the fungus had evolved the ability to synthesize taxol independent of the yew tree and provide a source for the drug, now used to fight cancer. The elder Strobel now travels the world in search of other naturally occurring compounds with biological activity that may lead to the development of useful drugs.
“Scott is a shining example of all that we hope for in our faculty,” said Yale College Dean Peter Salovey. “He is a brilliant and highly productive scholar and a passionate, engaging, award-winning teacher. I know that he’ll make the most of this opportunity to create a special experience for our students.”
Strobel was one of 20 HHMI Professors chosen from 150 applications for the grants. HHMI invited nominations from the 100 research universities with outstanding track records in sending graduates to medical or graduate school for up to two faculty members to compete for the professorships. In its first selection in 2002, Alanna Schepartz, the Milton Harris ‘29 Ph.D. Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale, was named to a HHMI Professorship.
“The HHMI professors are as excited about teaching as they are about research, and it definitely rubs off on their students,” said Peter Bruns, HHMI vice president for grants and special programs. “Undergraduates need a window into the excitement and fulfillment that scientists get from science. They need to discover that science is a way of learning and knowing, involving critical thinking, problem solving, and asking answerable questions.”
A nonprofit medical research organization, HHMI was established in 1953 by the aviator-industrialist. The Institute, headquartered in Chevy Chase, Maryland, is one of the largest philanthropies in the world, spending $483 million in support of biomedical research and $80 million for support of science education and other grants programs in fiscal 2005.