The UW has won a four-year, $2.2 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for programs to support undergraduate biology education, to help prepare future faculty and to develop K-12 outreach programs.
The award is one of 44, totaling $80 million, that are going to research universities nationwide. The grants from the Maryland-based Hughes institute range from $1.2 million to $2.2 million. The UW is one of seven universities to receive the maximum.
The largest share of the money will be aimed at strengthening the quality and intensity of undergraduate biology education at the UW, with a focus on research and community service, said Robin L. Wright, an associate professor in zoology who wrote the grant proposal and administers the program.
“In the past we haven’t even acknowledged that students existed until they declared a biology major — and that’s their junior year,” Wright said.
That will change with the creation of the Biology Fellows Program, which will recruit 20 to 24 students to receive academic, social and financial support during their freshman and sophomore years. The students will help create their own support network, meeting for weekly seminars and enrolling in the same biology classes and laboratory sessions.
During their junior and senior years, they and other biology majors can apply for research internships. But rather than being limited to three quarters or one summer of financial support, as is the case now, they could qualify for as many as eight quarters of support to carry on undergraduate research projects. They also can apply for the new Research Apprenticeship program, in which they would work for one quarter as part of a research team at Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island. Research apprentices would have no other classes and would live and work the entire quarter at Friday Harbor.
“That’s baptism by fire, but it’s life changing,” Wright said. “The students learn what it’s like to build the intense camaraderie that you have when you do science as a member of a team.”
The grant also will create a Future Faculty Fellows program, aimed at giving senior graduate students and post-doctoral researchers a firmer grounding in teaching skills. A typical graduate teaching assistant in science has little room to develop a course, Wright said, but instead must follow the plan established by the faculty member for whom the student is working. A Future Faculty Fellow, by contrast, would have far more discretion in designing a course and establishing assignments and materials, with a faculty member acting as more of a mentor.
“This experience will give them more of the tools they need to approach teaching effectively,” Wright said.
The Hughes grant also will be used for outreach programs, including those designed to help middle school teachers incorporate life sciences into their classes. One such program, the Summer Institute in Life Sciences, is a four-week session to help teachers build biology coursework aimed at meeting state testing requirements. The outreach efforts also include a partnership with community colleges in which those schools’ biology teachers meet with UW researchers to discuss issues and learn more about the latest techniques and research.
The Hughes institute has supported biology education and programs at the UW for the last 12 years, with the funds largely going to undergraduate research projects. That support has allowed 400 students at the UW and other institutions to conduct independent research, Wright said. In the last three years alone, 98 students have worked on projects in 79 different laboratories in 31 different biology or medical departments at the UW, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute and Harborview Hospital.
Wright expects the new grant to expand on those results.
“I think it’s a complete package that promotes undergraduate biology education but also emphasizes what our students do in service to the community,” she said.