When Michael McKeown worked in a laboratory for the first time as an undergraduate, he quickly felt part of the team. "I had a grad student mentor, but I didn't just tag along behind him," he remembers. "I had a project to work on. I went to the department journal clubs. And if the lab members had a party, I was there."
McKeown considers himself lucky to have had that experience. Now a geneticist at Brown University, he wants to give science majors the same sense of community. Through its new HHMI grant, Brown will bring together four diverse, eight-person research teams each summer. Together this "learning community" will go through one week of training to boost their computer and lab skills. They will then spend two months working on a research problem, under the supervision of a Brown faculty member and two graduate students. The teams will work with their faculty supervisors to design and carry out interdisciplinary projects that pique their interest and fit within broad themes, such as Disease Hunters, NanoInvestigators, and BioBuilders.
McKeown and his colleagues patterned the program after Brown's International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) teams, clubs that compete to create microorganisms that can do useful things, such as sense toxins or clean up oil spills. "Students and faculty really do form tight bonds within those iGEM teams, and they work hard and get very excited about what they're doing," McKeown says.
Throughout the summer, the learning communities will come together to discuss results, report their progress, and brainstorm for new ideas. At the end of the summer, members of the learning communities will present their work to fellow students and the campus community at an interactive poster session. McKeown thinks the project, one part of a larger science education grant, has the potential to change how undergraduate students and faculty carry out science research. "I think it can serve as a model for learning communities at other institutions."