The trick to keeping undergraduates in science, says biochemistry professor Linda Hicke, is to start early. In her experience, students who join her lab as freshmen and sophomores are the ones who are most interested in going on to graduate school and are most successful in their postgraduate careers. “It is more fulfilling for the student and more fulfilling for me than when they are just there for a summer. You can see them getting hooked,” she says.
With its first HHMI grant, Northwestern University (NU) will create a formal program to encourage this addiction to scientific inquiry. As part of its $2 million grant, the NU plans to establish a summer BioEXCEL program for 20 entering freshmen interested in medicine or bioscience who come from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. To prepare them for the rigors of college life, the students will take four intensive courses: calculus, chemistry, a survey of the “greatest hits” of recent biomedical research, and a project designed to build study skills and teach teamwork. “It’s a jump-start program for students from schools that didn’t have the resources to provide intensive, high-level classes in science,” Hicke says.
Students in the BioEXCEL program who show a strong interest in research will have the opportunity to move seamlessly into another new, HHMI-funded program: the NU Bioscientists. A freshman seminar will help prepare 30 students—teaching them basic laboratory skills, as well as poster presentation and proposal writing—and guide them toward a faculty laboratory doing research that attracts their interest. The students will then receive funding to work with a Northwestern faculty mentor doing research the summer after their freshman year.
Students who flourish in this environment will be able to spend up to three years working in their chosen laboratory— an important commitment, because Hicke says it can take a long time to learn the necessary experimental techniques to solve a problem and even longer for a student to develop the ability to think creatively about actually solving it. “But three years will allow the students to experience all the typical ups and downs of scientific research and give them enough time to generate data and be part of a publication,” she says.