When Richard Losick was an undergraduate at Princeton University, he made what he calls an "obscure" discovery that served as the foundation for his senior thesis. "It didn't make it into a journal," he recalls. "But no one knew it before me, and that really excited me about science."
What made the experience so valuable was having a mentor who pushed him to succeed. "My mentor went through my senior thesis in great detail," he recalls. "It was fantastic that he cared so much to look very closely at what I had written and to give me feedback about it."
Losick, now a biology professor at Harvard University, says the attention encouraged him to pursue his career as a biologist studying the cellular changes that govern microorganisms.
That early experience led Losick to realize that a mentor's personal attention can help persuade a student to become a scientist. As a professor, Losick had always set aside time to mentor talented students, and he often served as matchmaker for professors and students he believed would work well together. But he remained eager to encourage these mentorships on an even wider scale.
In 2002, with the help of his first HHMI professor grant, Losick developed two programs to bring faculty and students together into mentoring relationships. "A practicing scientist can mentor students on what matters most—learning how to learn, deciding which courses will serve them best, and showing them the excitement of doing research," he says.
The first program, Increasing Diversity and Education Access to Sciences (IDEAS, formerly called FEEDS), pairs first-year students at Harvard with faculty members for research projects that students pursue for the remainder of their undergraduate careers. Students receive a stipend for their research work, allowing them to spend their hours in the science lab instead of at mundane jobs. IDEAS fosters a community among the students, including by means of an annual retreat. A total of 54 students have participated in the program during its first seven years. Of the 30 students who have graduated, almost all are pursuing advanced degrees in science or medicine.
The second program, Life Sciences 100, aims to build closer ties between students and faculty by bringing together teams of undergraduate students to work on semester-long research projects led by a faculty member. Recent projects have included mapping neuronal circuits in zebrafish brains and studying electrical current production by microbial groups. At the conclusion of the project, students present their findings and learn to write National Institutes of Health–style grant proposals. More than 250 students, including a high proportion of women and nonscience majors, have participated in the program.
Losick's 2010 HHMI professor grant will help him build on both programs. The IDEAS program will expand to other universities, creating a larger community of students who will interact with each other annually at the retreat. Life Sciences 100 has expanded to include a range of cross-disciplinary projects, and Losick plans to share the program's success with a national audience.
While many of his students pursue careers in science after they graduate, Losick says the lessons they take with them apply no matter where they end up. "Students learn how to decide what's real and what's not by evaluating data," he says. "And I think that's a skill that everyone can use."