Vanderbilt biologist receives $1 million from Howard Hughes Medical Institute to start an innovative undergraduate science education program

September 18, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Vanderbilt molecular biologist Ellen Fanning is one of 20 research scientists nationwide who will each receive $1 million over the next four years from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in a new program intended to encourage researchers to put as much creativity into undergraduate education as they have into research.

"Research is advancing at a breathtaking pace, but many college students are still learning science the same old way, by listening to lectures in large classes and memorizing facts from textbooks," HHMI President Thomas R. Cech said when announcing the program. "We wish to empower scientists at research universities to become more involved and come up with really innovative ideas that ‘break the mold’ and take a fresh look at science education."

Fanning, who is the Stevenson Professor of Molecular Biology, intends to use the HHMI grant to build what she calls a “Community of Scholars” that will give participating undergraduates hands-on research experience.

“Learning about science through lectures and cookbook labs doesn’t give students a good idea of what science is really like,” Fanning says. ”Real science is a way of life. It is extremely interactive and much of what goes on in the lab is the interaction between different kinds of people with different kinds of skills. So we are trying to create something that is like an apprenticeship relationship between the students and faculty members, which is very hard to find in the undergraduate setting.”

According to statistics from the National Science Foundation, only half of the undergraduate students who express interest in science and engineering careers as freshmen go on to get degrees in these fields. Fanning is convinced that the proportion is so low in part because many of the students are never exposed to real research.

“In Germany, they don’t have this problem,” says Fanning, who held a faculty position at the University of Munich before moving to Vanderbilt. “Undergraduate science degrees in Germany are more like master’s degrees in the U.S. The students spend their final year doing research. They pick a mentor and a project and write a thesis.”

So Fanning intends to graft some of the elements of science education that work well in Germany onto the American system. Working with Gisela Mosig, professor emerita of molecular biology and biological sciences, and Katherine Friedman, assistant professor of biological sciences, Fanning will select 10 to 12 highly motivated freshmen each spring who are interested in the subject of DNA replication.

The freshmen will spend the summer before their sophomore year as full-time research interns, rotating through a number of labs. “The internship will introduce students to the excitement of research, help them develop personal and professional skills, lower barriers between beginners and faculty members, and foster a sense of community,” Fanning explains.

After an intensive summer reading journal articles, discussing, writing, speaking and doing experiments, the students will be encouraged to work in one of the labs for academic research credit. During the next two summers, the students can return as full-time undergraduate research fellows, continuing their research while mentoring the next crop of interns.

“All we are trying to do is translate the dynamic atmosphere of the lab to the undergraduate curriculum,” says Fanning. “We expect these undergraduates to benefit from close associations with scholars at all levels, as is customary in the lab, and to gain self-confidence as they assume mentoring responsibilities themselves.”

The program will also motivate and support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows preparing for a future teaching role. Graduate student and postdoctoral mentors in Fanning’s Community of Scholars can receive credit toward a Graduate Teaching Certificate from Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching, as well as satisfy a departmental degree requirement for teaching experience.

The program will bring in specially selected outside speakers to talk to the students and sponsor other events designed to build a sense of community. Summer interns will have the opportunity to stay in a block of rooms on campus. Although the details haven’t been worked out yet, Fanning hopes that the budding biologists may be among the early adopters of Vanderbilt’s new residential housing effort. If these plans work out, the students who are interested will also have the option of living together on campus.

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