HHMI Professors Meet


Dear Readers,

Those of you who follow this column know that, although it's an advice column, issues and events can upstage Q&A when events and issues are interesting and the questions I receive are boring. In these circumstances I'm likely to forgo the questions and skip straight to the pontification. This is one of those times.

On Thursday and Friday of last week (6 and 7 November), 20 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professors, HHMI staff, and invited guests met at the Chevy Chase, Maryland, headquarters of HHMI. The GrantDoctor was not among the invited guests but, as she often does at such events, had a spy there, sending back regular dispatches.

After the National Institutes of Health (NIH), HHMI is the second most important biomedical research organization in America, perhaps in the world. HHMI does provide grants and fellowships, but it prefers to think of itself not as a foundation, but as an active biomedical research organization. HHMI doesn't just provide research grants; it enters into collaborations with research institutions to develop cutting-edge laboratories for some 350 HHMI Investigators and their 3000 research associates, technicians, and other laboratory staff. HHMI's strategy is to invest in "people, not projects." In its own words, HHMI "believes that science is facilitated ... by providing outstanding researchers with the resources and flexibility to follow their scientific instincts and to pursue new opportunities as soon as they arise."

HHMI Investigators are the most visible and prestigious HHMI-supported scientists, but HHMI's newer, smaller group of scientists, the HHMI Professors, may prove the better value in the long run, in terms of impact on biomedical science and human health.

HHMI Professors--dubbed "million-dollar professors" by HHMI's propagandists--are, uniformly, elite scientists at research institutions across the United States. Their ranks include scientific luminaries such as Richard Losick of Harvard University, Mary Lidstrom of the University of Washington, and Hilary Godwin of Northwestern University (see Next Wave's July 2001 profile of Godwin, Northwestern's first tenured female chemist).

But the focus of the HHMI Professors program is not on research, per se; rather, the program aims to enhance the development of the next generation of biomedical scientists by drawing them into research and related activities at an early age. The goal of the program, as HHMI puts it, is to "bring the creativity [HHMI Professors] have shown in the laboratory into the classroom."

So what was happening last week at HHMI headquarters? This elite group of HHMI staff, HHMI Professors, invited guests, and GrantDoctor spies met to discuss the innovative programs proposed by the 20 HHMI awardees, their progress, and future dissemination. It was, by all accounts, an extraordinary outpouring of energy and talent directed at the education of undergraduate science students. To paraphrase a spy, scientists often find education-focused conferences and meetings insipid, focused more on the manipulation of vague ideas and ill-defined symbols than on real and meaningful (and measurable) initiatives and outcomes--but these HHMI Professors presented a wide array of well-conceived and -executed (not to mention well-financed) projects that are likely to make a real difference in the education of tomorrow's scientists. Here are some especially tasty morsels.

Louisiana State University-based Isiah Warner is a rare breed: an African-American chemistry professor at a major university. The pedagogical approach of his HHMI-funded program is equally rare; rather than selecting research students with impeccable academic credentials, Warner's program admits only students with grade point averages between 2.5 and 3.0. Young students in the program work intensively with a mentor who helps them master science and improve their study skills. Warner's program aims to develop a community of people who strive for self-improvement and take responsibility for their own academic careers. As I understand it, students whose GPAs get too high are kicked out of the program. Perhaps it would be better to say they graduate.

Harvard's Losick and Northwestern's Godwin both target students from underrepresented groups very early in their college careers. Losick identifies students during their first or second undergraduate year by means of a complex selection process, then partners them with research mentors. Godwin takes accepted students who enroll in introductory chemistry in their first year and involves them in efforts to monitor lead levels in low-income housing in the Chicago area. Although their approaches are quite different, both aim to inspire a personal interest in science and to build the confidence students need to make it through a rigorous (and sometimes hostile) training process.

Graham Hatfull starts his students even younger; he involves high school students and teachers in real research, isolating and sequencing bacteriophages--viruses that infect bacteria. Says Hatfull, young students "should be doing science, not just reading about what others have done." But Hatfull's program isn't only for high schoolers; the opportunity extends to young students at the University of Pittsburgh and includes even students who don't intend to major in the sciences. Hatfull's program blurs all sorts of lines--between scientists and nonscientists, and between teaching and research ... although he apparently regards the latter line as fictional, anyway: "Everyone [in my program] will be teaching as well as learning. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows will mentor undergraduates, and the undergrads in turn will mentor high school students. It is a great mistake--and one often repeated--to think of teaching as being separate from research, from doing science. We're all in the same boat as students and researchers, desperately trying to discover something that we didn't know before." But just because his research involves undergraduates, and even high school students, doesn't mean it's make-work pseudo-research. It is, he insists, real science: "This is science at the cutting edge, not just a laboratory exercise."

Doing real science with young students is a theme that runs through most, if not all, of the HHMI Professor projects. As my spy wrote by e-mail:

"Manny Ares of the University of California, Santa Cruz, set up a second lab, which he runs all year long in parallel with his main research lab. Students come in and out but often sign up for multiple sessions. He is essentially running a research program as a class. Students are doing extraordinary science. They are looking at [genetic] splicing in humans in the malaria parasite Plasmodium spp. Utpal Banerjee of UCLA is running a research program looking a mutations in proteins in Drosophila eyes. Sarah Elgin of Washington University in St. Louis is also doing a sequencing project, in conjunction with the sequencing center there. Ellen Fanning of Vanderbilt created a program based on the notion of a community of scholars that brings students in for a summer research program at a young age."

Real research, real attention, effective teaching: Implicit in many of these projects--but explicit in Ares's plan--is the notion that the division between research and teaching is artificial. "Research is the act of teaching ourselves, an act that is very similar to teaching others," Ares says. Ares aims to train, not just research scientists, but what he calls "teacher-scholars."

The list of innovative projects goes on and on. It's wonderful stuff. But why has the GrantDoctor taken such an intense interest in the program? Because there's a very important idea at the heart of every one of these creative, innovative initiatives, and it is this: The division between research and research training is artificial. You can't have one without the other. In science, teaching without research is impoverished, because what might be called the content of science--the pretty graphs and polished theories presented to students in slick textbooks--has little to do with the actual practice of science. And the real stuff is far messier, less impressive in some ways, and far more interesting.

But research without teaching, without training, is equally impoverished. The fundamental unity of science training and science scholarship does not relieve research scientists--their labs teeming with graduate students and postdocs supported by stipends paid from research grants--or their host institutions, or the funding organizations, of the responsibility to take training the next generation of scientists very, very seriously. The U.S. is the undisputed world leader in scientific research, but in this one respect we may be falling short.

Efforts like the HHMI Professors program are addressing this program in the earliest stages of scientific training by integrating real research into the teaching of young scientists. But what about the other end of the training spectrum? Real energy, creativity, and labor must be directed--by scientists, institutions, and funding organizations--toward the integration of meaningful, well-conceived training into the research activities of every science trainee, at every level ... including, notably, the nation's postdocs. In a recent article in Next Wave's Postdoc Network, HHMI President Tom Cech argues that mentorship should be included in the evaluation of a principal investigator's productivity.

To put it more broadly, training should be acknowledged as a fundamental, not accessory, goal of the scientific enterprise. If Cech is to be believed--and there's no reason I know of to doubt him--mentoring and training are valued and measured inside HHMI, even in evaluation of its superstar scientists. This is not some half-baked, idealistic scheme conceived by bookish educational theorists. It's imperative for the future health of America's scientific organism. Outside HHMI, however, it isn't happening.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!

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