On the third floor of the Biological Laboratories, Honor Hsin and Alice Bailey squint into computers, hoping that the data confirm that they’ve successfully made the gene mutations they set out to make.
“It’s unpredictable, because we’re kind of at the forefront of the research field,” says Hsin of their work on regulation of sporulation of Bacillus subtilis. “The questions that we’re asking haven’t really been addressed before.”
Hsin and Bailey are working on their own research projects alongside postdoctoral students in the lab of Richard Losick, Harvard College Professor and Maria Moors Cabot Professor of Biology, but they are not postdocs themselves.
In fact, they haven’t even finished their sophomore year. The women are some of Harvard’s undergraduate science students who are reaping direct benefits of a $1 million grant Losick received earlier this year.
In September, Losick was named one of 20 new Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professors for his dedication to improving science education for undergraduates. The grant, which comes in $250,000 installments for four years, supports Losick’s ongoing efforts in his introductory molecular biology class, “Biological Sciences 52,” as well as new initiatives he’s launched to stimulate and sustain undergraduate interest in science.
Losick is implementing a multipronged approach to capture the imaginations and boost the learning of would-be scientists.
He’s opened the research labs of three of his postdoctoral students to students like Hsin and Bailey, who come to “BS 52” with an exceptional understanding of the course work and a wealth of laboratory experience gained through high school or summer internships. The undergraduates have swapped the lab section of the course with their own research in a working lab.
Losick is also reaching out to freshmen who are eager to pursue science but who didn’t arrive at Harvard prepared by the vast opportunities Hsin and Bailey enjoyed. He wants to solidify their enthusiasm before large, fast-moving classes and new concepts have a chance to daunt them.
“If I can place them when they’re freshmen in a lab – where they get a lot of individual attention – to carry out a sustained research project, they would see what science is all about, which is quite different than taking courses,” he says. He has placed six first-years in the research labs of his colleagues according to the students’ interests.
Elinathan Ohiomoba, a first-year from Houston, will spend the spring semester studying the biomechanics of guinea fowl movement at the Concord Field Station with Andrew Biewener, Charles P. Lyman Professor of Biology and director of the Field Station. While her high school science program was strong, this will be Ohiomoba’s first real laboratory research experience.
“Because I’m starting early, I’ll have a lot of time to get the basics of research down,” she says, adding that she hopes to pursue the M.D./Ph.D. “By my senior year, I’ll hopefully have a good background that will help me translate my research to medicine.”
A different kind of intellectual experience
Losick speaks with zeal about his mission to bring undergraduates into research laboratories. He hopes that the lab work will spark enough connections and curiosity that the students will pursue multiyear projects that culminate in honors theses. The nature of such work, grounded in scientific inquiry and critical analysis, puts students much closer to real-world research than a semester of laboratory sections can.
“It’s a different kind of intellectual experience,” he says. “Instead of trying to learn material from lectures and reading and solving problem sets, you’re trying to learn something new about nature in the laboratory.”
The HHMI grant defrays expenses involved in overseeing the undergraduates in research laboratories and may, says Losick, provide stipends so students can continue their research through the summer. His colleagues in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, as well as other Harvard laboratories in Cambridge and at the Medical School, provide ample resources to give undergraduates research experience.
“Many undergraduates don’t realize the wealth of the opportunities they have,” Losick says. “And many of these labs love the idea of having bright, enthusiastic undergraduates join their labs.”
All 217 students in Losick’s “BS 52” will benefit from another use of his HHMI grant: Web-based animations of complex processes of molecular biology such as DNA replication or recombination.
“A lot of the things I teach are dynamic,” Losick says, acknowledging that the concepts of molecular biology are challenging to grasp for many who take his class. “If students can see them unfold [in front of them], I think they get the idea right away.”
The short animations, which exist on the course Web site along with slides shown in class and videotapes of course lectures, give students a visual image of what happens at the molecular level. General recombination, for instance, is broken into five digestible steps, each one animated as text describes the action. (See the animations at http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~bs52/.)
Students can pause and replay the animations as often as they need to. And for those who can’t tell a RecA from a RecBCD without a program, “dramatis personae” mouse-over buttons on the screen reveal “character” descriptions of the major players in this genetic cartoon.
Losick will use his HHMI grant to hire a professional animator to upgrade animations created by former students and to create additional ones. He’s hoping that other universities and institutions will find the animations on the Web and use them for their own courses, spreading HHMI’s wealth beyond Harvard.
New ways of enriching science teaching
Losick, whose Harvard career spans three decades, devotes his own research energy toward studying gene regulation in the bacterium Bacillus subtilis, probing the general question of how cells differentiate and specialize. He’s no stranger to the successful negotiation of the twin demands of teaching and research: In 2000, he was named Harvard College Professor for his commitment to undergraduate teaching.
The HHMI grant extends that commitment, helping Losick turn good ideas into reality.
“Having money means that I can enrich the course in ways that I couldn’t before,” he says.
Ever the scientist, Losick is already looking toward evaluating the results of his experiments in teaching.
“I want to track what happens with the students who I bring into this program over time,” he says. “Do they stay in the sciences? How do they do? Do they go on and join labs and do honors theses and stay in research while they’re at Harvard?”
For BS 52 students Hsin and Bailey, both biochemistry concentrators, placement in Losick’s lab has been the highlight of their course work and has had an impact on their future plans.
“It’s reinforced my interest in research,” says Hsin, and Bailey adds that it’s focused her research interests to DNA.
While his personal goal is to encourage future scientists, Losick acknowledges that the skills learned in the laboratory – asking a good question, testing a hypothesis, evaluating results critically – are transferable to almost any career.
“Whether or not a student goes on to be a scientist, I think this kind of experience would stand them in good stead in almost any future endeavor,” he says.