Howard Hughes Medical Institute Grant to Support Undergrad Research
By GAIL GALLESSICH
HUNDREDS OF SOPHOMORES take the introductory biology course each year at UCSB, and thanks to a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) each student will soon have the opportunity to perform original research on the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, a widely used genetic model for biomedical research.
The grant is part of HHMI’s $70 million commitment to helping universities strengthen undergraduate and precollege science education nationwide. Similar grants are being awarded to research universities across the nation to advance these efforts.
The inspiration for much of the new curriculum at UCSB came from the experience of Joel Rothman, a biology professor and chair of the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, when he directed the summer embryology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass. During the MBL course, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows spent three days conducting original experiments on C. elegans. Despite the time limitations, these advanced students were able to make original scientific discoveries, and came away with an appreciation for this area of research.
Back at UCSB, Rothman and colleagues Kathy Foltz and Rolf Christoffersen, also biology professors, began thinking about whether such an approach could be adapted to undergraduate laboratory activities that might kick-start college students’ interest in original research. “If advanced students could make original discoveries in only three days,” Rothman notes, “we wondered if it might be possible for biology students who are just starting their training to do the same over several quarters in a laboratory course.” Some 600 to 800 students take the introductory biology course each year.
The university plans to share the students’ results with the worldwide C. elegans research community by publishing their data on the web.