As an undergraduate student at Harvard 30 years ago, Huntington Willard received two rare gifts—two and a half years working in Sam Latt's research lab and the opportunity to delve into research literature in a class with Sarah Elgin, now an HHMI professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
Now, as director of the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy (IGSP) at Duke University, Willard can finally pay homage to his mentors by emulating the tactics they used to help shape his path.
"The work I did in Latt's lab was completely open-ended and the most exciting thing he was doing," notes Willard. "We didn't know where the research would lead; we just talked about all the possible experiments that could be done, if only this or that would work. To move out of the classroom and into the breaking waves of current research was an exhilarating experience that has shaped my entire career, both in the lab and in the classroom." And Elgin's course showed him that the answers to real science questions are not in the back of a textbook, but instead are yet to be discovered.
Lab work squeezed into a semester or two bears little resemblance to a research career, Willard argues; students need at least two and a half years to address real, open-ended research questions. So as an HHMI professor, Willard has taken some of Duke's internal requirements and blended them into a four-year track in genome sciences.
Freshman year starts with an interdisciplinary, four-course section called "The Genome Revolution" and the opportunity to join a research lab. Using both experimental and computational techniques, students will work collaboratively in the IGSP on projects focusing on topics such as X-chromosome inactivation, evolutionary genomics, and pharmacogenetics—how genetic variation affects drug metabolism.
"The HHMI program allows us to move to a team approach with clusters of three to five undergraduates—some geneticists, some computer scientists—all examining the same general question with different approaches," explains Willard. "It also removes the time restrictions, allowing students to make a real contribution to science."
In their junior year, students in the program will take a literature-based course whose design Willard admits he copied from Elgin's course that he took 30 years ago. Finally, a senior-year course covering scientific writing will culminate with an honors thesis, a paper for publication, and/or a presentation for a national scientific meeting.
Willard says the multi-year projects will let students "run faster and farther" and will give them a real research experience. "These projects will get students to peer around corners and open doorways they didn't even know existed."