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Driving a Cultural Change in Undergraduate Research

Lehigh University

Summary

Lehigh's Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute (BDSI)—a 10-week summer programplaces undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members on interdisciplinary teams to tackle projects such as looking for drugs to treat stress disorders and developing reliable methods to separate cells in the blood for detection of HIV.

Lehigh University wants to keep pace with a changing scientific culture that is placing new demands on researchers. Today’s students must be prepared to work and think across disciplines, and it takes a culture shift on campus to make that happen.

Armed with an HHMI science education grant awarded in 2006, Lehigh launched the Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute (BDSI)—a 10-week summer program that places undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members on interdisciplinary teams to tackle projects such as looking for drugs to treat stress disorders and developing reliable methods to separate cells in the blood for detection of HIV.

Behavioral neuroscience professor Neal Simon says the BDSI has already advanced the university’s broader efforts to establish a more integrated, interdisciplinary approach to science, both in and out of the classroom. Some of the collaborative teams created during the summer institute have continued to work together during the school year, and faculty members have sought out new collaborations with colleagues in other departments. The boundaries between teaching and research have diminished, and Lehigh’s department of biological sciences has the feel of a research institute, says Simon, who c0directs the program with molecular biology professor Vassie Ware.

A partnership with Lincoln University and Cheyney University—two historically black universities—allows students and faculty from those schools to participate in BDSI as well. “The cohort of students attracted to BDSI has been exceptionally well qualified and very diverse across gender, ethnicity, and academic interests,” says Simon, pointing out that the partnership with Lincoln and Cheyney is supported by both Lehigh and the state.

“The exciting thing about the Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute is that it is a mechanism for building an enduring cultural change in how science is practiced at the institution,” he says. “That in turn impacts how our students learn to think about science.”

Simon and Ware are pleased that the school will be able to continue to offer at least 16 spots in the popular program to new students as part of its new HHMI grant. With the grant, Lehigh will also begin to incorporate interdisciplinary approaches into more science courses. “We hope that moving coursework in this direction, combined with the overall cultural change, will benefit all Lehigh students,” he says.

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Jim Keeley
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Cindy Fox Aisen
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