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May 19, 2004

ULM Receives $1 Million Grant to Further Pre-College Programs

Colleges face a number of tough challenges in teaching science today. New fields that blur the lines between disciplines are emerging, and biologists, chemists, physicists and mathematicians are forging interdisciplinary collaborations. Scientists trained to be outstanding researchers need to learn to be outstanding teachers. More minorities must be encouraged to pursue scientific careers.

To help colleges meet these challenges, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is awarding $49.7 million in grants to 42 baccalaureate and master's degree institutions in 17 states and Puerto Rico. This brings HHMI's investment in undergraduate science to more than $606 million.

As a part of HHMI's program, the University of Louisiana at Monroe has received a grant in the amount of $1 million. The money will be used to continue the Biology Department's pre-college programs for high school students. Dr. Frank Pezold, professor of biology and principal investigator for the grant, said, "We also hope to develop a bridge program to keep students involved up through the time they enter college."

At present, the department offers a summer program for 48 high school juniors to participate in hands-on projects with ULM professors. The new program would bring those students back the summer of their senior year, where they would work independently on research projects. The goal of the program is both to attract students interested in the sciences, and to give them a head start, getting them involved in work that they can continue as an undergraduate. Also, the department hopes to establish a partnership with Xavier University, which will allow undergraduates from the university to come to ULM for research work.

Pezold said, "This offers a great experience for both the faculty and the students. It's a chance to put the area's brightest students to work with the university's best professors. It encourages us as teachers when we see that enthusiasm and curiosity in students; it reinvigorates our interest, and leads to better work." Also working as co-principal investigators on the project were biology faculty Dr. Mark Decamillis, Dr. David Roane, Dr. Ann Findley, Dr. Anna Hill, Russ Minton, and Dr. Eric Pani.

The four-year grants, ranging from $500,000 to $1.6 milion, support a variety of programs to improve undergraduate science, from new courses in hot fields such as bioinformatics and computational biology, to fellowships for postdoctoral researchers that include teaching experiences, and a mobile teaching laboratory to bring science to disadvantaged and minority students in remote areas.

Although its investigators conduct research at universities and medical schools, HHMI supports science at colleges because they also play a vital role in education, according to Peter Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs at HHMI. "Good science can be done in different settings, in colleges as well as universities," said Bruns. "Colleges are a better learning environment for some students, and they serve underrepresented minorities extremely well."

Undergraduate biology is not well funded nationally, notes Stephen Barkanic, director of HHMI's undergraduate science education program. "Public and private funders tend to focus their support on research programs, infrastructure, and graduate training, but undergraduate biology tends to be neglected. Smaller colleges and universities, in particular, often are overlooked in the intensive competition for grant dollars."

The new grants encourage collaboration among recipients. Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges in Minnesota, for example, are collaborating with Michigan's Hope College to create faculty teams from biology, the physical sciences, and mathematics who will work together on research and develop interdisciplinary courses and labs.

The grants also support training in teaching for postdoctoral fellows in science. City University of New York Queens College, Occidental College in Los Angeles, and North Carolina's Davidson College, for example, will establish postdoctoral fellowships that provide training and experience in teaching as a component of a strong research program.

Several of the new grants address the ongoing under-representation of some minorities in the sciences. Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College in Pennsylvania will bring their strengths in science to a partnership with Philadelphia area schools. Undergraduates and faculty from both colleges will mentor middle and high school students, providing laboratory experiences and writing workshops. The colleges also will offer summer workshops for Philadelphia area teachers.

In the lower Rio Grande Valley, where the population is 88 percent Hispanic and the unemployment rate is triple the national average, the University of Texas-Pan American will equip a mobile teaching laboratory staffed with scientist-educators to bring contemporary biology to students and teachers throughout the region. And Florida A & M University in Tallahassee, a historically black institution, will develop after-school and summer science and technology programs to attract the mostly African-American students of the Leon County South Side Schools.

HHMI invited 198 public and private baccalaureate and master's institutions to compete for the new awards. They were selected for their record of preparing students for graduate education and careers in research, teaching, or medicine. A panel of distinguished scientists and educators reviewed proposals and recommended the 42 awards approved by the Institute's Board of Trustees on May 4.

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