His Students Are Pre-Grads
Undergraduates who want to become doctors usually major in biology.
These "pre-meds" make up the majority of biology majors at most
universities. HHMI Professor Tim Stearns is designing a "pre-grad"
program to help overcome that bias by recruiting and training students
at Stanford to become research scientists.
"Premier research institutions in this country don't make full use
of their potential for training undergraduates to be practicing
scientists," says Stearns, an associate professor of biological
sciences whose lab studies how cells divide. "This is partly because of
a lack of resources to support teaching by talented faculty and partly
because the teaching mission tends to focus on the large numbers of
With $1 million over four years, Stearns now has the resources. He
will use them to create a pre-grad program that will recruit
undergraduates early, targeting those who are interested in science and
technology but who might have been turned off by the usual pre-med
focus in biology. The pre-grad program will offer a new course on the
methods and logic of biological experimentation, based not on
textbooks, but on the primary literature of scientific journal
articles. Students will take part in a project lab with research
faculty and do an honors thesis, including a summer of research between
their junior and senior year. Students will also attend scientific
meetings and meet scientists who have made careers of working in
academic research, biotechnology, the pharmaceutical industry,
publishing and government.
"The feeling of being on the edge of the unknown, that is what
research is all about," Stearns says. "In most undergraduate labs,
particularly at large universities, students are just repeating
experiments someone else already did many years ago. That isn't
Stearns' own experience doing undergraduate research at Cornell
University inspired his pre-grad plan. "I worked with Tom Fox on his
studies of mitochondria in yeast cells," the Stanford researcher
recalls. "It was an exciting experience, and made me decide to get a
Ph.D. in biology." In graduate school at MIT, Stearns worked with David
Botstein, whom he credits with shaping his interest in teaching. "David
emphasized the relationship between teaching and research," says
Stearns. "The idea that research and teaching are separate endeavors is
artificial—the experience of teaching helps you to do better
He cites his experience as a junior faculty member, teaching the
yeast genetics course in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's
internationally renowned summer school, as an example. "I learned as
much from interaction with the other instructors and from the students
as they learned from me, and I always came back to Stanford with new
ideas for our work."
Associate editor of the journals Genetics and Molecular
Biology of the Cell, Stearns has also won Stanford's Dean's Award
for Distinguished Teaching.