Preparing Disadvantaged Undergrads to Compete
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
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
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."