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Pitt earns $1.5 million grant to educate, retain science students

PITTSBURGHThe Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced today that the University of Pittsburgh has received a $1.5 million, five-year grant to continue, develop, and create new lab-based biology courses aimed at retaining students in the sciences.

Pitt is one of 37 schools to receive funding through the HHMI's Sustaining Excellence competition geared toward improving science teaching nationwide. More than 170 applicants underwent three rounds of peer review before HHMI decided on the 37 recipients.

Graham Hatfull, the University's Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology as well as an HHMI professor, is leading the charge to expand and develop course-based research experiences in the Department of Biological Sciences within the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. The effort will build upon science educational activities funded by HHMI for the past eight years.

"In the past, and this will continue, students learned to 'do' science through an apprentice-based approach, working with a faculty member or a graduate student," Hatfull says. "What HHMI is aiming at is the sort of approach where you can develop a course-based research experience that can engage many more students and can do so at an early point in their college careerin other words, freshmen."

In its press release, HHMI reports that nearly 40 percent of the 3 million students who enter college annually intend to study science or engineering, but 60 percent of that cohort fail to earn their degree in a science or engineering field. Hatfull is optimistic that the HHMI funding will help reverse this national trend.

"Research indicates that it is effective to get students involved in lab work," he says. "If we can get to students in their freshman year and get them invested in research that will promote retention in the sciences. The earlier we get them, the bigger the impact it will have."

Nancy Kaufmann is the assistant program director in Pitt's Department of Biological Sciences for the HHMI-supported work. She says a portion of the money will be used to expand offerings of the Hatfull-created SEA-PHAGES course, in which students find, identify, and sequence the DNA of bacteriophages, the most abundant life form on Earth. SEA-PHAGES has been implemented at 70-plus colleges and universities around the country and a study reporting its success was published in mBio this year. Another course, already being piloted in Pitt's biology department and ready to be expanded, delves into the intricacies of aquaporins, proteins that control fluid levels in cells.

Kaufmann says the grant will also allow Pitt biology faculty to develop new lab-based courses, pay for summer research fellowships for undergraduates after their freshman year as well as the salaries of graduate teaching assistants and teaching postdoctoral students, and fund an already-in-place Research Hub lab where undergrads can do independent research.

"This is not something that we have to roll out as a huge initiative in one year," Hatfull says. "We're going to find out what works and try to achieve a sustainable structure that will change the way in which we teach freshman biology. We want to create a new 'normal.'"

Contact: Joe Miksch
University of Pittsburgh

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