Undergraduates who want to become doctors usually major in biology. These "pre-meds" make up the majority of biology majors at most universities. HHMI Professor Tim Stearns is designing a "pre-grad" program to help overcome that bias by recruiting and training students at Stanford to become research scientists.
"Premier research institutions in this country don't make full use of their potential for training undergraduates to be practicing scientists," says Stearns, an associate professor of biological sciences whose lab studies how cells divide. "This is partly because of a lack of resources to support teaching by talented faculty and partly because the teaching mission tends to focus on the large numbers of pre-med students."
With $1 million over four years, Stearns now has the resources. He will use them to create a pre-grad program that will recruit undergraduates early, targeting those who are interested in science and technology but who might have been turned off by the usual pre-med focus in biology. The pre-grad program will offer a new course on the methods and logic of biological experimentation, based not on textbooks, but on the primary literature of scientific journal articles. Students will take part in a project lab with research faculty and do an honors thesis, including a summer of research between their junior and senior year. Students will also attend scientific meetings and meet scientists who have made careers of working in academic research, biotechnology, the pharmaceutical industry, publishing and government.
"The feeling of being on the edge of the unknown, that is what research is all about," Stearns says. "In most undergraduate labs, particularly at large universities, students are just repeating experiments someone else already did many years ago. That isn't science."
Stearns' own experience doing undergraduate research at Cornell University inspired his pre-grad plan. "I worked with Tom Fox on his studies of mitochondria in yeast cells," the Stanford researcher recalls. "It was an exciting experience, and made me decide to get a Ph.D. in biology." In graduate school at MIT, Stearns worked with David Botstein, whom he credits with shaping his interest in teaching. "David emphasized the relationship between teaching and research," says Stearns. "The idea that research and teaching are separate endeavors is artificialthe experience of teaching helps you to do better science."
He cites his experience as a junior faculty member, teaching the yeast genetics course in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's internationally renowned summer school, as an example. "I learned as much from interaction with the other instructors and from the students as they learned from me, and I always came back to Stanford with new ideas for our work."
Associate editor of the journals Genetics and Molecular Biology of the Cell, Stearns has also won Stanford's Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching.