Graham Hatfull remembers when he was an undergraduate at the University of London. "I thought scientists were incredibly clever people, intimidating and inaccessible, the academic elite," he says. "I never thought I could be one of them." Then he stumbled into an undergraduate research project. "I ended up staying in the lab over the summer, because I just couldn't stop at the end of the school year," he recalls.
Now, as an HHMI Professor and Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studies mycobacteriophages—viruses that infect mycobacteria such as the kind that causes tuberculosis—Hatfull is dedicated to putting students in research labs as early as possible in their academic careers. "They should be doing science," he says, "not just reading about what others have done."
He's not just talking about science majors, either. "There is a general problem with our entire educational system," he says. "People aren't learning how science is done or how scientists think, and that is important no matter what career they end up in. It's time for universities and research faculty to stand up and say that educating people about science is vital, and to do something about it. That's what HHMI is doing with these professorships. They are the first to put their necks on the block, and they are in a position to have an enormous impact on science education in this country."
Hatfull plans to attract students as early as their freshmen and sophomore years into his research laboratory, where they will isolate and sequence new bacteriophages and learn to analyze their genomes. He also plans to involve high school students in the research. Eventually, he hopes to have an entire high school class working on the initial stages of phage isolation.
Everyone will be teaching as well as learning. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows will mentor undergraduates, and the undergrads in turn will mentor high school students.
"It is a great mistake—and one often repeated—to think of teaching as being separate from research, from doing science," says Hatfull. "It really isn't a matter of a professor teaching students. We're all in the same boat as students and researchers, desperately trying to discover something that we didn't know before."
Hatfull expects to learn new and potentially useful things from the students' research. "This is science at the cutting edge," he says, "not just a laboratory exercise."
In his research, Hatfull often collaborates with HHMI investigator William R. Jacobs at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Jacobs will work with Hatfull's students, as will the University of Pittsburgh's HHMI-supported undergraduate biological sciences program.ha