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Undergrad biology education at MIT gets boost from HHMI


Professor of Biology Graham Walker is one of 20 inaugural Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professors in the United States. Through this new program, each of the selected researchers will receive $1 million over the next four years to bring the creativity they have shown in the lab to the undergraduate classroom.

"I feel that the HHMI professorship is remarkable because it will bring research-scale funding to my educational efforts," Walker said. "I've felt extraordinarily lucky to have spent my professional career at MIT, where I'm surrounded by colleagues who are both outstanding researchers and deeply committed teachers. Nevertheless, like many other faculty at MIT, I've had more ideas for teaching and curriculum development than I've had time or resources to pursue. The award should allow me to play a leadership role in undergraduate education in the biological sciences while still letting me put just as much energy and enthusiasm into my research program."

Several MIT faculty members are HHMI investigators, who are employed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Unlike the investigators, who focus on basic biomedical research, the work of the 20 HHMI professors nationwide will be geared toward enriching undergraduate education at their institutions through creative bridging of research and teaching.

Walker, who recently also was named one of 18 American Cancer Society Research Professors in the country, wants to establish an education group analogous to the research group in his lab. Mentored by Walker, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduates will work together to develop web-based curricular materials and take-home experiments designed to excite and engage introductory biology students.

For example, each student might be assigned a small set of genes to use in assignments concerning protein structure, genetics and evolution.

Walker calls the education-group concept a new model for active research scientists who love teaching.

Walker, who studies how cells respond to DNA damage and the biological interdependence of certain bacteria and plants, said that throughout his career, he has "balanced on a tightrope between devoting time to my research career and my efforts in undergraduate education." He has published more than 230 scientific articles and a textbook as he has continued to teach introductory biology. He has headed HHMI's undergraduate research program at MIT since it began in 1989.

HHMI is a private philanthropy dedicated to biomedical research and science education. The organization employs 324 investigators who conduct basic medical research in HHMI laboratories at 69 leading U.S. research centers and universities. Through its complementary grants program, HHMI supports science education in the United States and a select group of researchers abroad.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 18, 2002.

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