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
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
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.