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Preparing Biology Undergrads to be Problem Solvers

Summary

Interdisciplinary thinking must be cultivated at the undergraduate level, HHMI professor Manuel Ares, Jr., writes in a Commentary in the December issue of Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

If today's undergraduates are going to become researchers who solve the important biomedical problems of tomorrow, interdisciplinary thinking must be cultivated at the undergraduate level, says Manuel Ares, Jr., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In a Commentary in the December 2004 issue of Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, Ares calls for big changes in the way undergraduates are taught biology to help them become interdisciplinary problem-solvers.

A bachelor's degree is useful if it prepares you to address the unknown.

Manuel Ares, Jr.

Ares is one of 20 HHMI professors nationwide. They were selected by competition to receive $1 million each from HHMI to help transform undergraduate biology education and raise the value placed on teaching at research universities.

“The education we provide to undergraduates needs to teach them to handle environments we can't predict,” Ares says. “Really good curricula do that by focusing on processes: how to think and how to learn, rather than facts. A bachelor's degree is useful if it prepares you to address the unknown. It hasn't done that if you just come away with a bucket of facts.”

But, he says, several traditional practices within undergraduate education work against interdisciplinary thinking and may be hard to overcome. Choosing a major today is less about what students want to learn and more about whom they want to be. A major too often identifies what the student is not going to do and erects unnecessary disciplinary boundaries, the HHMI professor adds.

Once a major is chosen, degree requirements can become constraining, leaving little room for creativity. When Ares suggested his biology students take a course on the computer programming language Perl—so they could at least understand how computers are used to study biology—they had to petition the department chair and the curriculum committee to apply credit for the computer course as a required elective lab for their major.

With support from the HHMI professors program, Ares is trying to overcome those obstacles. He has developed an experimental undergraduate research laboratory class in which computer science and bioinformatics majors work with molecular, cell, and developmental biology majors. The 1,200-square-foot teaching lab is equipped with computer network servers, a microarray spotting robot, an array scanner, and a real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine, along with standard molecular biology equipment and materials. The students do research as part of interdisciplinary teams. They learn about the capabilities and limitations of instruments and get to spend hands-on time in each other's fields.

Ares encourages bioinformatics students to get directly involved in wet-lab experiments and biology students to get computer-programming experience. “Each side learns what the other is up against and learns the physicality and time dimensions of the other's activities,” Ares wrote. “This kind of cultural exchange is exceedingly valuable in their team efforts, as each has more appreciation for and patience with their teammates.”

He is hoping his program will appeal to a wide variety of students. It should be attractive to a student who thinks she wants to major in physics, for example. “There are problems in biology where you really need a physicist,” he explains. “Now, physicists may encounter biology late in their careers. But if a kid has the capability and interest to be a physics major, she might be able to learn all the physics she needs and also get the biology that will acquaint her with the challenges within biology that might interest physicists.”

In the same issue of the journal, HHMI President Thomas R. Cech and Gerald M. Rubin, vice president and director of HHMI's Janelia Farm Research Campus, wrote a commentary titled “Nurturing Interdisciplinary Research.” describing the goal of the Janelia Farm campus now under construction in northern Virginia: to create an environment that brings biomedical scientists together with computational scientists and instrument builders to develop new technologies and apply them to challenging biomedical problems that have high potential impact.

Ares sees his lab as a small-scale model of Janelia Farm in its effort to enable students to reach across their experiences and accomplish something bigger than any of their disciplines.

“I got excited by the challenge of the HHMI Professors program,” Ares says. “I liked the idea that you can be great at research and creative in teaching and contribute to the next generation, continuing the momentum that we've developed in biomedical research.” Ares is also a project director on a MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) grant from the National Institutes of Health to design a biology curriculum track that is more quantitative and more interdisciplinary.

Ares credits his undergraduate education at Cornell University for preparing him to do the cutting-edge genomics research he does today. Much of his work is focused on the mechanisms and regulation of splicing, which is required to remove intron sequences from pre-messenger RNA and enable coding for protein synthesis. “I'm fond of telling my students that splicing didn't exist until the year I graduated from college, and yet, somehow, what I did as an undergrad enabled me to address this problem as a practicing scientist,” he says.

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
University of California, Santa Cruz
Molecular Biology

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