Walk into most labs, and you'll find yourself in a community of scholars: a research professor, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and lab staff, chatting about their research and the journal articles they are reading, comparing notes, asking questions, teaching and learning from each other. Ellen Fanning wants Vanderbilt undergraduate science experiences to be like that.
"No one discovers what science is all about in big lecture halls and cookbook labs," says Fanning, a research molecular biologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who studies how viruses make use of cellular proteins to circumvent the cell cycle regulation process and replicate themselves. "It really can only be taught one-on-one, working on problems that haven't been solved yet."
As an HHMI Professor, she and faculty colleagues Katherine Friedman and Gisela Mosig will recruit freshmen to spend the summer before their sophomore year as full-time research interns, rotating through a number of labs. "The internship will introduce students to the excitement of research, help them develop personal and professional skills, lower barriers between beginners and faculty members, and foster a sense of community," Fanning explains.
After an intensive summer reading journal articles, discussing, writing, doing experiments, and presenting their results, the interns will be encouraged to enroll for academic-year research credit hours in one of the labs. During the next two summers, the students can return as full-time undergraduate research fellows, continuing their research while mentoring the next crop of interns.
"All we are trying to do is translate the dynamic atmosphere of the lab to the undergraduate curriculum," says Fanning. "We expect these undergraduates to benefit from close associations with scholars at all levels, as is customary in the lab, and to gain self-confidence as they assume mentoring responsibilities themselves."
The program will also motivate and support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows preparing for a future teaching role. Graduate student and postdoctoral mentors in Fanning's Community of Scholars can receive credit toward a graduate teaching certificate from Vanderbilt's Center for Teaching, as well as satisfy a departmental degree requirement for teaching experience.
"A number of people took the time and made the effort to include me in their science community when I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, and as a result, I have made a wonderful life in science," Fanning says. "I'm really evangelical about sharing that with the next generation."
In Germany, where she did her graduate and postdoctoral work, Fanning recalls that the term for a research adviser is Doktor Vater (Doctor Father). "I am going to be these undergraduates' Doktor Mutter," she says.