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Lehigh to participate in HHMI science education program



Vassie Ware (right), professor of biological sciences, will teach the new HHMI-sponsored course along with Margaret Kenna, Ph.D., manager of the instructional labs.

Introducing students early on in their education to hands-on, collaborative science research is a goal of Lehigh’s Department of Biological Sciences, and thanks to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), a new cohort of Lehigh students will soon be making discoveries of their own.

Lehigh University has been selected to participate in the HHMI’s Science Education Alliance (SEA), which will expose students to scientific discovery on a national scale. The initiative began in 2007 at an initial 12 colleges and universities to allow faculty to work together to deliver innovative science education programs.

As one of 12 new schools selected for the SEA in 2009, Lehigh will join and help expand the alliance’s first project, the National Genomics Research Initiative.

“When you visit these schools, you can see that institutional transformation is occurring,” says Tuajuanda Jordan, director of the SEA program at HHMI. “We have given these educators ammunition to show their colleagues that research courses are a viable way to engage students and possibly retain them in the sciences.”

This semester, faculty will identify a small group of first-year students with a demonstrated interest in genetics and molecular biology who are both academically strong and primed for research. Students will be offered the chance to join a two-part, year-long course that will be implemented through their sophomore year genetics lab beginning in fall 2009. Vassie Ware will instruct the course along with Margaret Kenna, Ph.D., manager of the instructional labs.

“We applied so that we’d have an opportunity to bring introductory biology-level students into the national fold to participate in this problem-solving effort,” says Ware, professor of biological sciences. “This is an extraordinary opportunity for our students.”

While the complete curriculum for next year’s course at Lehigh awaits finalization in consultation with the SEA, Ware believes Lehigh will expand upon the research started by the initial participants. During that time students made real discoveries by researching bacterial viruses known as phage. After isolating colonies of bacterial phages from soil samples they collected locally, students purified and characterized their phage and then extracted its DNA for sequencing. Isolated phages were also visualized by electron microscopy. Students used bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate the genes from the phages.

Participants will be given project-based lab work and contribute to actual research where the answers are yet to be found. The prospect that new phages and new genes will be discovered is very likely. Students will also be able to communicate with students and faculty at other participating schools to compare findings.

“One of the goals of biological sciences is to bring other disciplines in to give a broader education to students,” says Ware. “This opportunity from HHMI fits beautifully with what we’ve been trying to do all along. It will get our students thinking outside their own limitations and boundaries within our discipline.”

Ware also says that while students will take on biological problems, the solutions will come only when they see the connection between disciplines and contributions from fellow scientists, physicists, chemists, computer informaticists, or engineers. The program is a boon to faculty as well, who see opportunities for long-standing connections with faculty across the SEA’s participating schools—ranging from small private colleges to large research universities.

The department of biological sciences has also been working on unique programs, thanks to a 2006 HHMI grant under the direction of professor of biological sciences Neal Simon and Ware. Through that grant, the department has been offering a multidisciplinary introductory course entitled “Bioscience in the 21st Century,” which was available online to members of the Lehigh community and the general public. Other multidisciplinary bioscience-related courses will also be offered. The grant also supports the 10-week Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute which allows students to work on interdisciplinary research teams of faculty and students to address bioscience-related problems defined by the research interests of participating faculty.

--Tricia Long


Posted on Thursday, January 15, 2009

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