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Focusing Freshman Curiosity


Yi Lu wants to capture the natural curiosity freshmen hold about the world and nurture it instead of letting the usual and ordinary science courses dampen it.

"Most freshmen are full of curiosity about phenomena around us," he says. "However, many of those curiosities are quenched by the rigid, sequential instruction mode." Such teaching can discourage undergraduates from considering science majors.

As an HHMI Professor, Lu wants to preserve the early interest of undergraduates by allowing them to design studies based on scientific topics that interest them. Working with the lecturer, a teaching postdoctoral fellow, graduate teaching assistants and senior undergraduate students, the beginners will design plans for investigation of a topic that intrigues them—including but not limited to performing undergraduate research in a laboratory," he says.

They will also give presentations on their findings, as "real" scientists do. "In this way, we wish to bring meaning to taking science courses and sustain the student's curiosity," he explains.

As associate professor of chemistry, biochemistry and biophysics, Lu studies the role of metal ions in biological systems, both good metals and bad ones. "We all know that we need metal ions or minerals, such as calcium, potassium and iron, to maintain a healthy life," he says. "We also know that toxic metal ions, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, are bad for human health. We want to know the why and how of these effects."

During the past eight years, Lu has invited more than 30 undergraduate students to work in his lab. "Most of them told me how the curiosity-driven research going on in the lab makes their courses so much more meaningful," he says. The HHMI professorship will allow him to expand the number of students in his lab.

A native of China, Lu grew up in Tianjin, a coastal city in the north, southeast of Beijing. "As a child, like many other children, I dreamed of being an engineer (my father was an engineer) or a surgeon," he says. "I picked chemistry as a major for a very simple, maybe silly reason: chemistry was the only course that I scored high in without having to study much in high school."

Lu has been a recipient of National Science Foundation CAREER and Special Creativity Extension awards. He also was a Beckman Young Investigator, a Sloan Fellow and a Cottrell Scholar.

He was drawn to his current research while a first-year graduate student. He remembers the exact moment, during a meeting with his Ph.D. adviser, Joan Selverstone Valentine at UCLA.

She showed him a colorful protein structure on a computer screen. Wearing 3-D goggles, he was able to rotate the protein like an object in his hands. He realized that scientists can now change the properties of a protein, such as color and activity, to those of a brand new protein by replacing only one or a few selected residues of the protein. "Suddenly, I realized that this was what I had been looking for—the most exciting engineering at the smallest scale and the ultimate surgery at the molecular level," he says.

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Chemical Biology

For More Information

Jim Keeley
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