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HHMI awards $1.2 million to UF for undergrad education

GAINESVILLE, Fla. Imagine a chemistry professor and a neuroscientist working together to test a new drug to fight Alzheimer's disease, or a biomedical engineer working with an orthopedic surgeon to help patients walk again.

At the University of Florida, teamwork is often considered the shortest route toward solving human health problems. But more than that, novel collaborations can inspire students who are beginning their journey in the life sciences.

Today the Howard Hughes Medical Institute awarded UF a $1.2 million grant to support this collaborative approach through a dual-mentorship initiative within the UF-HHMI Science for Life Program.

The grant is UF's second undergraduate grant from HHMI. In 2006, HHMI awarded $1.5 million to UF to help establish a cross-disciplinary UF-HHMI Science for Life undergraduate laboratory, which recently opened in the new Biomedical Sciences Building on the Health Science Center campus.

The new funding from HHMI will give undergraduates the opportunity to learn how to scientifically approach human health problems by working with faculty members trained in different disciplines often a basic scientist and a translational scientist rushing to speed therapies to the clinic, according to Ben Dunn, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the College of Medicine and director of the UF-HHMI Science for Life Program.

"Mentoring is an important part of our approach," Dunn said. "Basically, this started when we were trying to help freshmen identify research laboratories across campus. Three professors from diverse fields come into a class to give short presentations about their work. We want to present the students a smorgasbord of options. We want them to hear a talk, be inspired and get in touch with the professors."

Now, students and faculty from eight colleges and 50 departments participate in the UF-HHMI Science for Life Program, Dunn said. In the first four years of the program, 240 undergraduates have worked on faculty research projects, and students in the program have become co-authors on 57 research papers.

"We are unique in having such a large and complex campus," Dunn said. "Through this program, students can make connections by working in different labs, which gives them a strong cross-disciplinary foundation. This is a way to give basic science students an understanding of how their research may be used."

The UF-HHMI Science for Life lab, directed by David Julian, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, acts as the hub for UF-HHMI undergraduate training in chemistry, physics, biomedical engineering, mathematics and biology.

Fifty research universities in 30 states and the District of Columbia will be awarded a total of $70 million through HHMI's undergraduate program.

"HHMI is committed to funding education programs that excite students' interest in science," said HHMI President Robert Tjian, Ph.D. "We hope that these programs will shape the way students look at the world whether those students ultimately choose to pursue a career in science or not."

HHMI, the nation's largest private funder of science education, has spent $1.6 billion since 1985 to reform life sciences education from elementary through graduate school. Its support has made a difference at UF, not just for students, but for the faculty as well, Dunn said.

"We are encouraging professors across the campus to get involved," Dunn said. "This gives them a chance to pursue some of their most creative ideas to teach and inspire students about science and research."


Contact: John Pastor
University of Florida

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