For a decade, HHMI Professor Graham Hatfull, a biotechnology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has helped students conduct authentic research on bacteriophaghes, widespread viruses that infect bacteria. Started as a single class, the HHMI-supported phage hunters project has grown to encompass 71 schools and thousands of students.

Why does real research resonate with students?

Students have a keen nose for the difference between an exercise and doing an authentic piece of science. When they start doing a piece of genuine scientific exploration, for which the answer is not yet known, that becomes much more interesting. It doesn’t just matter to them — it also has the capacity to matter to others.

Can you provide some examples of how that plays out?

I see it every year at our annual symposium. The excitement and level of engagement is palpable. Many of these students have just finished their freshman year, and they’re getting up in front of a large audience and giving polished, smart presentations of their research. I hear it from other faculty members who say students just don’t miss classes. There are no aged relatives who need to be visited, no flat tires on the way to class, or any of the other creative excuses about missing classes. Students attend class. Period.

Isn’t it a tall order to ask faculty members and schools to overhaul their teaching?

It can be, but they won’t be doing it in isolation. There are [hundreds] of colleges and universities engaged in different discovery-based research programs. There is now a wealth of resources for information. It’s true that faculty members will do work for which there aren’t always easy or known answers. Faculty may have the same kinds of questions that the students have, and in that sense, they are both there to learn and discover about a particular area of science. It can be scary, but it can also generate a bond between faculty and students.

What are the challenges of expanding from a single section to a dozen or more?

A research-based course can be more demanding of faculty and instructor time than a traditional course. That’s manageable for one section, but moving one section to five or ten sections requires faculty to manage [the personnel] that will be required. But one of the advantages of teaching this course to freshmen is that students who have completed the course often are willing to serve as undergraduate teaching assistants during their sophomore, junior, and senior years. That’s a resource that can help provide the instruction to enable some schools to expand to larger numbers.

Not every student will pursue a science career. Can other students benefit?

Learning firsthand how science is done, and having some degree of scientific literacy, is valuable. Whether those students go into teaching, journalism, politics, or public policy, they can benefit from knowing how discoveries are made and how knowledge is advanced.

Scientist Profile

Graham F. Hatfull, PhD

University of Pittsburgh
Biochemistry, Genetics, Microbiology

Biomedical Research

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