Rice tapped for model programs merging teaching, research

Top researchers win prestigious HHMI grants for undergrad teaching

HOUSTON– Rice University, which provides more than half of its engineering and science undergraduates with research experience, today won three highly sought grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to develop model programs for the nation that infuse undergraduate teaching with cutting-edge research.

HHMI today named Rice professors Bonnie Bartel and Jennifer West to the elite ranks of its HHMI Professor program. The highly competitive program provides four-year, $1 million grants for top-flight researchers to develop innovative programs that combine undergraduate teaching and research. HHMI also announced continued funding today for HHMI Professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum.

"The HHMI Professor program aims to reinvigorate science and engineering teaching by tapping into the excitement that flows from laboratory research," said Rice President David Leebron. "Rice's leadership in this endeavor is evident from the fact that three of the 40 awards given over the life of this program have gone to Rice faculty – the most of any institution. Professors Bartel, West and Richards-Kortum are extraordinary exemplars of the Rice tradition of great researchers dedicated to undergraduate education."

HHMI Professors are leading research scientists who are deeply committed to making science more engaging for undergraduates. Bartel is the Ralph and Dorothy Looney Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. West is the director of Rice's Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering, the Isabel C. Cameron Professor of Bioengineering and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Richards-Kortum is the Stanley C. Moore Professor and department chair in bioengineering and professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Bartel's HHMI research program, "From Reading to Research: Introducing Undergraduates to Research from the Outside In," will attempt to draw freshman and sophomores into science by involving them in small, intimate classes and practical lab training.

"Freshman science lecture courses are often by necessity large and impersonal, and we risk losing some of our best students if that is the only exposure they have to biology before their junior year," Bartel said.

Bartel will develop a course designed to introduce freshman to the realities and excitement of lab research. The class will consist of multiple small groups, each led by a graduate student or a postdoctoral researcher who will lead in-depth discussions about a newly published research article from a local laboratory. Students will delve deeply into the ins and outs of day-to-day research with laboratory tours, meetings with researchers and reviews of experimental data and equipment.

For sophomores, Bartel will implement a laboratory module designed to serve as a gateway into more extensive projects in faculty research labs. In the module, pairs of students will identify the products of an uncharacterized plant enzyme. Using biotechnological methods, each pair will create a genetically modified yeast that will produce enough of the enzyme for systematic study. In the final phase, the students will conduct the first structural studies of the products of their target enzymes using gas- chromatography and other cutting-edge techniques. In follow-ups to the lab, the students will have the opportunity to work in faculty labs with graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to continue studying their enzymes and prepare peer-reviewed research publications.

West's program, "Educating Interdisciplinary Scientists for Bionanotechnology: A Bottom-up Approach," includes four components: a high school summer academy, a new seminar-style course to introduce freshman to the interdisciplinary elements of bionanotechnology, a biology course for designed for upper-level students in engineering and the physical sciences, and a summer internship program for both Rice and non-Rice engineering and physics students who want to participate in bionanotechnology research.

"I love teaching, and one of the key reasons I applied for this grant was for the opportunity to create closer connections between my teaching and my research," West said. The high school summer academy will expand upon an annual program Rice has conducted with the Science Academy of South Texas. The new program will add a research component to allow students to experience life in the lab with a graduate student mentor. The seminar course in bionanotechnology will be developed by West and taught in multiple sections by postdoctoral fellows, allowing for a much smaller class size. Both the freshman seminar and the accelerated course in cell and molecular biology will target undergraduate engineering and science majors at Rice who are interested in biomedical research but who have little life science training.

"There is intense interest among our students in pursuing biomedical problems, and these courses will dramatically expand the pool of students with both the interest and the knowledge that's required to take part," West said.

Richards-Kortum's program, "Health-Care Technology Development and Assessment: Integrating Research and Undergraduate Education in Biomedical Engineering," is one of 20 inaugural programs funded under the HHMI Professor program. The HHMI funding allowed Richards-Kortum to develop a new introductory course in bioengineering geared specifically for non-science and non-engineering majors that focuses on how new healthcare technologies are developed to address world health challenges. Hands on activities allow students to examine global challenges associated with developing and testing new vaccines to prevent infectious disease, imaging systems to detect cancer and implantable devices to treat heart disease. She's also worked with Dr. Michele Follen at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to develop a highly successful summer intern program that provides undergraduate bioengineering students the rare opportunity to shadow research physicians in the Texas Medical Center as they both see patients and work in the lab to bring new technologies into clinical use.

"Being an HHMI Professor has provided me with a unique opportunity to fully engage undergraduates in biomedical research and development," Richards-Kortum said. "As a teacher, it is so exciting to see students from multiple backgrounds become immersed in developing bioengineering solutions to the health-care challenges facing our world. The Professors program has truly had a transformative effect on my career. I'm honored to have the opportunity to continue these programs and to begin to provide this unique experience to middle school and high school students."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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