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Asai Named as HHMI Undergraduate Science Education Program Director
When David Asai delivered his first lecture to a sea of sophomores taking an introductory biology class, his sole training as a public speaker consisted of a high school debate class. That's when he realized that teaching students about science required more than a Ph.D.
Now Asai has been named director of HHMI's undergraduate science education program and he hopes to rewrite the rule book for how science, and science teachers, should be taught. He comes to HHMI from Harvey Mudd College. In his new position, he will oversee an annual portfolio of over $50 million in initiatives that are reinvigorating life science education at research universities and liberal arts colleges and engaging the nation's leading scientists in teaching.
“We support innovative programs that bring the content, excitement, and relevance of science to students and David has shown that he can deliver exactly this sort of program,” says Peter J. Bruns, HHMI's vice president for grants and special programs.
A cell biologist, Asai knows firsthand the impact the Institute's grants can have: he has overseen HHMI programs at both Purdue University and Harvey Mudd College.
Asai hopes that, with HHMI support, his college and university colleagues will take on big questions: How is science best taught across disciplines? How can students be best prepared to learn about science? How can the ranks of scientists be diversified? How can faculty members become better teachers?
Going out on a limb in education programs will lead to the answers, Asai believes. “HHMI grants cause the institutions to commit to trying something new,” he says. “It really is a quid pro quo. You want this grant? You've got to do something different.”
Asai, who grew up in Hawaii, got hooked on science through a National Science Foundation summer research program for high school students, similar to programs funded by HHMI. He received his undergraduate degree from Stanford University and then went to graduate school at the California Institute of Technology. His research has focused on understanding the structure of dynein—a molecular motor responsible for many cellular activities.
After 19 years as a faculty member at Purdue, Asai was recruited to Harvey Mudd, where he served as biology department chair for the last 5 years, teaching and continuing his research.
Photo: Mark Harmel