Many research centers bring together scientists from different fields so they can apply their diverse perspectives to common problems. Harvard University wants future scientists to approach every problem with an interdisciplinary perspective of their own.
With the help of a previous HHMI grant, Harvard revamped its introductory science curriculum to expose students to a set of interdisciplinary foundation courses. Rather than the traditional, separate courses in biology and chemistry, students take a first course synthesizing chemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology and a second covering topics in genetics, genomics, and evolutionary biology. Forty percent of all first-year students take these courses. One of the principles behind the reform, which was launched in 2005, is to make students more comfortable applying perspectives drawn from the different sciences.
It should be clear from the beginning of students’ college careers that everything is interrelated, says Robert Lue, the university’s director of life sciences education and HHMI program director. “The new curriculum has been extremely successful. It has increased the number of students enrolled in life sciences courses and who subsequently major in the life sciences,” he says.
With its new HHMI grant, Harvard will develop an interdisciplinary summer fellowship for students who have completed their introductory coursework and are ready to apply their knowledge to a research project. The program will involve three new centers at Harvard that embrace interdisciplinary collaboration: the Center for Brain Science, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Center for Systems Biology, and the Microbial Sciences Initiative. Students will work with pairs of faculty on projects that bridge the work of laboratories in separate fields.
“This is a great opportunity to leverage what the centers are doing to create a summer research project with students that is explicitly interdisciplinary,” says Lue. The hope is that students will employ boundary-free thinking as they participate in research teams. The program’s broader aim is to cultivate a generation of scientists who are equally strong researchers, educators, and citizens.