To many scientists, there is no wilder place than the human brain. Understanding it fully takes cross-disciplinary, collaborative work spanning fields such as genetics, evolutionary biology, and psychology. With support from HHMI, Duke University is giving undergraduates a taste of that collaborative world with the new theme of its undergraduate research program, "Inquiry Across Scale: From Genes to Cognition." The idea is to get students involved in research and to get them thinking about scientific questions on a variety of scales, from the workings of molecules in cells to the behaviors that arise from millions of neurons firing in concert.
HHMI has funded Duke's Hughes research fellows program since 1990. In this program, 20 undergraduates dedicate eight weeks of the summer after their freshman year to an independent project in a faculty member's lab. They come together twice a week for talks related to the grant theme—for the last three summers, it has been systems biology, a way of thinking holistically about an organism or system. With the new inquiry across scale theme, scientists will talk about how the brain makes decisions and how humans evolved the ability to solve problems. The students also blog about their progress—hiccups as well as successes—throughout the summer.
"It's been a fabulous program for us because it engages students early in their academic career, and they tend to stay in their labs and really get hooked on research," says Lee Willard, Duke’s associate vice provost for academic planning. Many of the students continue doing research throughout their college careers. "We're trying to develop a culture of research," says Willard. More than three-quarters of science students at Duke do some research with a faculty member.
A second HHMI-funded program introduces upper level students to research on interdisciplinary teams. During the summer after their sophomore and junior years, students spend 10 weeks working on a team of two undergraduates, two graduate students, and two professors. "We're trying to create a new generation of problem solvers that can adapt their scientific knowledge and skills across disciplines," says Willard. "They can use those skills to really think outside of the box about important issues.”