When Emory University set up its first, modest HHMI-sponsored undergraduate research program in the late 1980s, skeptics wondered whether Emory faculty would be willing to have undergrads in their labs, Pat Marsteller recalls. “Nowadays we have several hundred faculty—from the medical school, the school of public health, and all the science departments—wanting to be involved,” says Marsteller, a biology professor and HHMI’s program director. And if they’re left out, she hears about it: “‘How come I didn’t get my undergraduate student this year?’”
A new HHMI grant will help Emory meet the rising demand through two programs that get students into the lab—and do it earlier. Research Partners, which began as a pilot in 2005, places 30 students in the university’s research labs during the school year, where they are mentored by graduate students and faculty. With the new HHMI grant, the popular program will expand to 40 per year and will target freshmen and sophomores. The second program, the long-running Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, which has placed more than 1,100 students in research labs, will start focusing on first- and second-year students too. “We know that when we get students interested during their first year, they’re much more likely to stay in a science major and go on to a research career,” Marsteller says.
To add a taste of science for beginning students, introductory science courses and seminars will incorporate research modules in which students analyze papers written by Emory faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows. A 2006 pilot test of this approach in an introductory biology lab course showed that students who took that class and reviewed papers from an Emory zebrafish biology lab were more likely than those who took a more traditional course to do undergraduate research and to remain science majors. “In these modules the students will be reading papers, deconstructing them, and figuring out what’s exciting about the research questions being investigated,” Marsteller says, emphasizing that the school will try to integrate research into courses at all levels. During the coming fall semester, students will study Emory papers on polymers produced by living organisms, drug design, and coevolution.