Grant aids biologist's teaching

Sept. 18, 2002

by Terry Devitt

In the ultracompetetive world of academic science, it is no secret that research universities often harbor a cultural bias for performance in the laboratory, an emphasis that sometimes comes at the expense of undergraduate education.

Now, with the help of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, 20 outstanding research faculty at 19 prominent universities, including UW-Madison, will get a chance—and a million dollars — to be as creative in the undergraduate classroom as they are in the lab.

Today, Sept. 18, the Chevy Chase, Maryland-based institute, best known for its support of biomedical research, announced the appointment of its first class of HHMI professors, a designation that will help chosen faculty deploy the same kinds of resources to undergraduate education that now go to helping solve pressing research questions.

At UW-Madison, plant pathology professor Jo Handelsman was designated an HHMI professor, an appointment designed to demonstrate "that active, productive scientists can be effective teachers, too," according to Peter J. Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs at HHMI. Handelsman was chosen from among 150 scientists nominated by 84 American research universities.

"There is no doubt that this program will help us improve education for undergraduates and raise a new generation of researchers who bring the same spark, rigor and innovation to teaching that they bring to their research," Handelsman says.

The new HHMI program is intended to sway a culture that tends to reward the kind of research achievement that, all too often, comes at the expense of teaching undergraduate science. The problem has long been recognized in higher education and has come under scrutiny by entities like the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation, not to mention the public.

"Research is advancing at a breathtaking pace, but many university students are still learning science the same old way, by listening to lectures, memorizing facts and doing cookbook lab experiments that thousands have done before," says Thomas R. Cech, president of HHMI. "We want to empower scientists at research universities to become more involved in breaking the mold and bringing the excitement of research to science education."

Handelsman, who joined the UW-Madison faculty in 1985, is a well known scientist whose accomplishments include helping to develop new techniques for accessing the genetic potential of previously untamable soil microbes, and the discovery of a bacterium known as UW85 that produces novel antibiotics.

But Handelsman is also well known as a dedicated and innovative teacher of undergraduates. Her course for non-science majors, "Plants, Parasites and People," is a wildly popular class that leans more on student participation and work in small groups to solve real-world problems than passive lecturing and rote memorization.

"The people we should be teaching to design experiments and actually do science are freshman and especially non-majors," she says.

Although UW-Madison has been far from immune to the issues of imbalance between work in the classroom and in the lab, Handelsman says it was no accident that UW-Madison is among the first institutions to receive one of the prestigious new HHMI professorships.

"The university has always had a deep commitment to both research and teaching, and to the integration of the two. We have a strong tradition of providing undergraduates with research experience, thereby making their experience a true product of a research university," she says.

But UW-Madison, like virtually all research universities, has room for improvement in the undergraduate classroom and researchers need to see that performance there can be rewarded and valued within the university community.

The new support from HHMI, Handelsman says, will underpin two new programs: The first is the HHMI Undergraduate Scholars, a program designed to give students research experience in UW-Madison labs with trained mentors. The second will be the HHMI Teaching Fellows, composed of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows who want to learn effective and innovative teaching and mentoring practices.