UC Santa Cruz professor awarded $1 million grant for innovative approach to undergraduate science education

Manuel Ares, a professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, will use a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to pursue an innovative approach to teaching science to undergraduate students. Ares wants to give more students the opportunity to learn in a real research environment. He is one of 20 scientists nationwide who have been appointed as HHMI Professors, with the goal of making science more engaging for undergraduates.

HHMI solicited proposals last year from 84 research universities, hoping to encourage fresh approaches to science education. The HHMI Professors program aims to change the culture of research universities, where teaching often tends to be valued less than research.

"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," said HHMI President Thomas R. Cech.

Ares will use the grant to create an undergraduate research laboratory in which students will learn by conducting research in genomics. The students will focus on certain features of the human genome and the genome of the malaria parasite.

"I want to make it a one-room schoolhouse for genomics, where students with different strengths will work together and learn from each other," Ares said. "I envision a laboratory where students have a set of research goals, state-of-the-art equipment, and access to experts who can provide appropriate guidance; but the research will be done by the students. The idea is to teach them how to operate in a research environment where they won't know the answers to everything, so they'll need to consult with others, read the literature, and conduct experiments."

The undergraduate research group will consist of 10 to 15 students at one time. New students will come in as the older ones graduate or leave the program, and probably 30 to 40 will participate over the four-year period of the grant. The students will be primarily juniors and seniors, with majors in various disciplines, including biology, bioinformatics, and computer science. In the course of their research, the students will learn essential concepts of genetics, molecular biology, protein structure and function, physiology, and evolution, Ares said. They will also learn about the applications of computer science and mathematics to problems in biology.

A special laboratory dedicated to the research group will be established, complete with sophisticated equipment and technology. The students will have their own set of interdisciplinary questions to address, but their work will be integrated with the rest of Ares's research laboratory.

"We'll have joint lab meetings, and the whole lab will be engaged in this," Ares said. "I'll probably spend a lot of time with the students, but they will also be interacting with my graduate students and postdocs, as well as with other faculty."

Ares said he hopes the experience will encourage students to think of themselves not only as scientists but as scientist-teachers. He also wants to engage students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences.

"I'm particularly interested in attracting students who may not have seen themselves as scientists or science educators, and giving them the opportunity to see the possibilities for themselves in that area," he said.

In his proposal, Ares emphasized the close natural relationship between teaching and research. Teaching should be established as an integral part of research, in both formal and informal ways, he said.

"I think the key is to make self-learning, which is an intrinsically self-satisfying activity, connect more directly to teaching, which is an altruistic activity that generates satisfaction in the teacher indirectly through its effects on others," Ares wrote in his proposal. "Research is the act of teaching ourselves, and is accomplished using the same elements we should be using to teach others. I have found that the best teachers are also immersed in research and scholarly activity of their own design."

Ares noted that his own experience doing research as an undergraduate was a critical factor leading to his career as a university scientist and teacher. His long-term goal for the project, which he hopes to continue after the end of the grant period, is to help establish a new generation of faculty who are committed to the value of integrated research and teaching.

"The thing I'll most enjoy is if I find someone who hasn't recognized that potential in themselves, who gets engaged and turns out to be a really good scientist and teacher," he said.

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Editor's note: Reporters may contact Ares at (831) 459-4628 or ares@biology.ucsc.edu.

Additional information about the HHMI Professors program is available on the web at: http://www.hhmi.org/preview/091802.html.

A recent press release describing Ares's research is available at: http://www.ucsc.edu/news_events/press_releases/text.asp?pid=178.