Lehigh’s department of biological sciences has received a major competitive grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to boost interdisciplinary research and educational opportunities for students.
In a competition limited to major research universities, Lehigh was among 50 institutions that received a total of $70 million in four-year awards intended to strengthen undergraduate and precollege science education. Lehigh’s grant was for $1.5 million.
The schools will use the funding to develop research-based courses, enhance opportunities for students to engage in laboratory research, and improve science teaching from elementary school through college.
Lehigh’s program will promote an interdisciplinary perspective on issues in the life sciences around the theme of “biosystems dynamics.” Centerpieces of the program include a novel introductory survey course, “Bioscience in the 21st Century,” and the Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute (BDSI), a 10-week research-intensive experience in an interdisciplinary team environment.
The survey course exposes students to the breadth of disciplines and perspectives that address issues such as major diseases, new technology development, bioremediation, and bioethics.
The BDSI supports interdisciplinary research teams composed of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members from different disciplines. The teams investigate a focused life science problem in areas including genomics, bioinformatics, diagnostic technologies, drug development, novel biomaterials, and reproductive biology. To date, 24 teams have been supported.
Working in teams on increasingly complex problems
The current HHMI program was launched in 2006 when Lehigh received a $1.8 million grant to develop a bioscience program with the goal of preparing students to work in a team environment to address increasingly complex problems in the biosciences. Neal Simon and Vassie Ware, professors of biological sciences, headed the 2006 grant and will continue as directors of the new award, which runs through 2014.
“The cohort of students attracted to BDSI has been exceptionally well-qualified and diverse across gender, ethnicity and academic interest,” says Simon. Some students who participate in the summer BDSI have come from Lincoln and Cheyney Universities, two historically black universities in Pennsylvania. Lehigh’s partnership with the two schools has been supported by both Lehigh and the state of Pennsylvania.
The HHMI program has helped advance Lehigh’s efforts to establish a more integrated, interdisciplinary approach to science. Some research teams launched as part of the summer BDSI have continued to work together during the school year. Faculty members have sought out new collaborations with colleagues in other departments, and the boundaries between teaching and research have diminished.
“An exciting aspect of the HHMI program is that it is a mechanism for building an enduring cultural change in how science is practiced at the institution,” Ware says. “That in turn impacts how our students learn to think about science.”
HHMI, the nation’s largest private funder of science education, has spent $1.6 billion since 1985 to improve the teaching of life sciences from elementary through graduate school. In the 2010 competition, the organization gave awards to 50 of the 165 research universities that applied for grants. Thirty-two, including Lehigh, had received awards in 2006.
“HHMI is committed to funding education programs that excite students’ interest in science,” says HHMI President Robert Tjian. “We hope that these programs will shape the way students look at the world—whether those students ultimately choose to pursue a career in science or not.”