A Research Biologist on a Teaching Tightrope
Research groups are the backbone of any scientist's lab. A senior
faculty member heads a team comprising postdoctoral fellows, graduate
students, research associates and occasionally, undergraduates.
Together they plan experiments, share the work and analyze the results,
and the progress they make is a synergistic product of their constant
As an HHMI Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Graham Walker wants to establish an education group analogous to the
research group in his lab. Mentored by Walker, postdoctoral fellows,
graduate students and undergraduates will work together to develop
Web-based curricular materials and take-home experiments designed to
excite and engage introductory biology students. "For example," Walker
says, "we might assign each student a small set of genes when the
course begins, and then have them use their genes in assignments
concerning protein structure, genetics and evolution."
Walker calls the education-group concept a new model for active
research scientists who love teaching as he does. From it could grow a
cadre of young researchers who share a passion for teaching. Also, as
in a research group, synergism can generate a product that is more than
the sum of its parts.
"I am lucky to be at an institution that champions undergraduate
teaching," says Walker, a professor of biology who studies how cells
respond to DNA damage and the biological interdependence of certain
bacteria and plants. "Even so, there is only so much time. Throughout
my career, I have balanced on a tightrope between devoting time to my
research career and my efforts in undergraduate education."
A leader in his field, Walker has published more than 230 scientific
articles and a textbook, and recently received an American Cancer
Society Research professorship, one of only 18 in the country. He has
served as editor in chief of the Journal of Bacteriology. Yet he
continued to teach introductory biology, and he has headed HHMI's
undergraduate research program at MIT since it began in 1989.
"This HHMI professorship gives me the resources to leverage the
hours I have always spent teaching," Walker says. Training
undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs to become effective
scientist-educators and creating Web-based animations, virtual labs and
experiments that will be made available at no cost through MIT's
OpenCourseWare project can potentially reach thousands of biology
students in this country and around the world, he explains.