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Preparing Disadvantaged Undergrads to Compete

Summary

Harvard University makes a point of recruiting disadvantaged students, many of whom are minorities, but not many of them become excited about research or about pursuing a career in the sciences. Biology professor Richard Losick aims to change that.

"The first year at Harvard can be very difficult, especially for students from weaker academic backgrounds," Losick explains. In their sophomore year, each student is assigned a faculty tutor, but many founder before that. As an HHMI Professor, Losick will seek out freshmen who have expressed an interest in science but whose preparation has placed them in the most elementary courses. They will be invited to do research in faculty labs—Losick's and others—giving them personal interaction with a research scientist and a chance to do real science.

"The lab will be their home base, a counterbalance to the alienation of large freshman lecture courses," Losick explains. "The human aspect, the personal attention, is important, especially at an early point. My own interest and success in science was reinforced by many dedicated researchers along the way."

A molecular biologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences who studies how genes get turned on and off when cells differentiate, Losick has always welcomed undergraduates in his own lab. "It's so inspiring to see them getting excited about their first piece of real research," he says.

Working with undergraduates is stimulating for the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the lab as well, says Losick. "The best way to really understand something is to teach it, to find ways to explain it to beginners."

Losick, who is in charge of Harvard's biochemical sciences concentration, always wanted to be a scientist, but his early schooling had nothing to do with it. "Science was my hobby," he recalls. "School was drudgery."

He wants to address that problem too, targeting students who have already worked in a research lab during high school. Losick plans to pair them with postdoctoral fellows, to work with the postdocs on their research. "We need to hold their interest by giving them challenging, exciting research experiences instead of cookbook labs," he explains.

Named a Harvard College Professor for his devotion to teaching, Losick also plans to develop computer-based animations and videos for teaching introductory molecular biology. "It is extremely challenging to explain concepts that involve processes that are dynamic or difficult to visualize, such as DNA replication, pre-mRNA splicing and DNA topology," Losick says. "Interactive animations and Web-based videos can help tremendously."

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
Harvard University
Microbiology, Molecular Biology

For More Information

Jim Keeley
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