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UCLA Tears Down Departmental Walls

University of California, Los Angeles

Summary

The University of California, Los Angeles will use part of a new $1.2 million HHMI grant to break down artificial boundaries imposed by traditional major requirements to allow students to experience the thrill of the scientific chase.

The University of California, Los Angeles—one of the country’s top 10 feeder schools for science and engineering Ph.D. programs—has a solid track record of engaging students in science. But many of the school’s 3,000 biology undergraduates don’t get to experience the excitement of discovery in the lab, in part because they only have time to take required classes.

The university will use part of a new $1.2 million HHMI grant to break down artificial boundaries imposed by traditional major requirements to allow students to experience the thrill of the scientific chase. “We’re finding that the kind of structure we used for setting up departments isn’t really right for 21st-century science, which involves being able to take information from genomics, genetics, developmental biology, microbiology, biochemistry, and putting it all together,” says HHMI program director Frederick Eiserling.

Under the new program, students will still take the lecture courses associated with their major. But for their laboratory experience, they’ll choose among three interdisciplinary research tracks. The first track allows students in lab-based classes to jump into experiments related to a professor’s research, such as hunting down novel bacterial viruses in soil or taking a close look at plants and their associated microbes. The second gives students a hands-on research experience working with faculty mentors from a wide variety of life science and medical departments for at least two back-to-back quarters. The third track, part of a larger biomedical research minor, provides a similar lab-based research experience but matches students specifically with biomedical researchers, with whom they will work for more than a year. Students working in individual scientists’ labs will also enroll in a seminar that will help them learn about the hows and whys underlying lab research. In all three tracks, students will be assisted in finding a faculty mentor or research-based class outside of their traditional major.

UCLA will test this approach for the approximately 900 students in two majors. If the tracks provide students an authentic research experience, UCLA will expand the program to all life science majors. The hope, Eiserling says, “is for our students to view science as a more integrated exercise in intellectual activity, rather than being forced to jump through a set of hoops without quite understanding why.”

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Jim Keeley
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Cindy Fox Aisen
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