Summary

Fourteen leading scientists have been named HHMI professors, an award that recognizes excellence in research and education and empowers recipients to explore new approaches to important challenges in science education.

2017 HHMI professors

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced today that 14 leading scientists have been named HHMI professors, an award that recognizes excellence in research and education and empowers recipients to explore new approaches to important challenges in science education. HHMI is awarding 10 individual grants of $1 million each and two grants for collaborative projects that will receive a total of $1.5 million each over five years.

The HHMI Professors Program, which was created in 2002, identifies highly accomplished research scientists who have compelling ideas to advance science education, and provides them with flexible support to try out these ideas.

Through the HHMI Professors Program, the Institute is hoping to change the culture of research universities so that innovation in teaching is as highly valued as innovation in research. HHMI seeks scientists whose research careers have armed them with years of valuable experience and an ambition not only to share their skill and knowledge with students but also to become a model for other faculty members, both inside and outside their home institution. The newly selected group—who represent nine universities across the country—will join the Society of HHMI Professors, 52 scientists who are working together to advance best practices and principles in science education.

“I know from personal experience that exceptional teachers and mentors can have a huge impact on what a student believes is possible to achieve,” said HHMI President Erin O’Shea. “The HHMI professors are accomplished scientists who will inspire new generations of students through their work in the classroom and in the lab.”

The leading research universities in the United States are home to some of the world’s best scientists and recruit many of the nation’s most accomplished young people. With a strong commitment to the highest quality of scholarship, the best science faculty at research universities also provide leadership in the development, implementation, and dissemination of innovations in science education.

In an era of increasing pressures on research funding, new emphases on student enrollment and retention, new technologies for delivering education and measuring student learning, and new scholarship in discipline-based education research, science faculty members are challenged to navigate an increasingly complex landscape. Science faculty members who can successfully advance their research and teaching goals through creative integration of the two are a valued asset to their departments and important exemplars for their colleagues.

The 55 scientists (three are now deceased) who have been named HHMI professors since the program began have introduced innovative approaches for teaching science in the classroom, expanded and enhanced student research opportunities, developed new educational resources, and implemented novel mentoring programs for student support.

Some examples of their impact include:

  • HHMI professor Graham Hatfull created the “phage hunters” PHIRE research project at the University of Pittsburgh. The PHIRE project, which was originally envisioned to involve 10-12 students a year, exploded in scale so that this year, the HHMI SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genetics and Evolutionary Science) program involves 114 institutions and 4,600 students this year. The SEA-PHAGES Program has become a model for understanding how students persist in science.
  • Rebecca Richards-Kortum, an HHMI professor at Rice University, created a program that enabled students to approach some of the world’s most compelling health issues as bioengineers. Richards-Kortum and her students developed new technologies, including an inexpensive incubator for a neonatal ward that promises to improve the care of newborns in Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi.
  • HHMI professor Irving Epstein began the nation’s first Science Posse at Brandeis University; now 10 colleges and universities have adopted this program on their own campuses. The program is designed to attract and retain talented, underrepresented students in college-level science.
  • At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, HHMI investigator and HHMI professor Cathy Drennan developed a boot camp curriculum that teaches graduate student teaching assistants in the biology and chemistry departments how to build inclusive learning environments for students.
  • Students who participated in HHMI professor Isiah Warner’s mentoring program at Louisiana State University show higher average GPAs and graduation rates than other LSU students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields—despite underperforming during their first-year science coursework.
  • HHMI professor Jo Handelsman pioneered the scholarship of “scientific teaching” and has focused on faculty development. In addition to writing the Entering Mentoring handbook used by colleges and universities across the nation, Handelsman, together with colleague Bill Wood, created the Summer Institute for Scientific Teaching, which has grown from a single Institute to several regional institutes, reaching hundreds of faculty every year.

“Many of the HHMI professors are important leaders in the scientific and academic communities,” said David J. Asai, senior director in science education at HHMI. “They are effective advocates for the importance of scientists engaging in rigorous science education.”

In the 2017 HHMI Professors competition, which opened in April 2016, HHMI stated it was seeking scientists who strive for creativity and set ambitious goals. Natural science professors at the 114 doctoral universities classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as having “highest research activity” were invited to apply.

In response to the competition announcement, HHMI received 177 proposals from 206 scientists – 148 individual and 29 collaborative proposals. Panels of distinguished scientists and educators reviewed the proposals in two rounds of reviews. Finalists presented their proposed activities at a symposium at HHMI in October 2017.

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eric anslyn

Eric Anslyn, PhD

University of Texas at Austin


andrew ellington

Andrew Ellington, PhD

University of Texas at Austin

A Merging of Undergraduate and Graduate Education

The goal of our HHMI proposal is to establish a unique training experience for undergraduate and graduate chemistry and biochemistry majors, aimed at creating the next generation of both scientist-leaders and scientist-entrepreneurs. We will build on current UT Austin programs that integrate research with undergraduate education to enhance experiential learning, but expand them towards improving entry into professional school and the corporate world. The impetus for our HHMI program derives from the limited structure of current university education in the United States, which is typically split into distinct two stages: pre- and post-graduate, with little blending of the two. In the sciences, the undergraduate student experience is dominated by completing courses, often with only a small component of research, and little to no career preparation. To improve educational outcomes for the real world, we will establish what we refer to as TRIP and TRIC career tracks for undergraduate students. The TRIP (Translational Research Initiative-Professional) Program guides and mentors students, especially from underrepresented groups, early in their undergraduate careers. We propose to develop a structured approach that promotes scaling, in which students will be brought into a research group, mentored by graduate students from the start, and involved in the pedagogical aspects of a graduate education as undergraduates, ultimately experiencing firsthand what it means to become a professional scientist. The TRIC (Translational Research Initiative-Corporate) program will have a parallel goal of guiding and mentoring, again from underrepresented groups, but for a different outcome. Like TRIP, TRIC will provide students with a research experience, but will educate them in what it takes to work in the corporate world, and then back this up by generating real work experience with companies. Our goal is for TRIC graduates to hit the ground running immediately following graduation and to begin their business arc, whether within an existing company or founding their own.

avery august

Avery August, PhD

Cornell University

CU Research Transfer: Enhancing the Research Experience of Community College Transfer Students

As the costs of attending a 4-year college continue to increase, community colleges are increasingly seen as a route to lower college costs. Furthermore, community colleges are also major destinations for lower income, first generation, women and minority students, and significant pipelines for students seeking to earn STEM degrees. However, a small percentage of students who enter community college planning to transfer actually do so, and those who are able to transfer face a number of barriers that can make success difficult, including obtaining undergraduate research experience, which can contribute to the success of STEM students. Current data suggest that research experience of over a year provides better value to the student than summer experiences. The CU Research Transfer Program aims to enhance the success of 2-year transfer biology students at Cornell University by enhancing their transition to Cornell, and increasing their participating in undergraduate research. The proposed program includes three stages: Pre-summer Research Exposure Program (PREP) (to enhance preparation for laboratory research); Research Mentoring and Preparation (value added research training), Peer Mentorship and Outreach, and Evaluation. Since 2-year transfer biology students to Cornell are more likely to be underrepresented than the total transfer population, we anticipate that this program will also enhance the success of underrepresented students at Cornell.

paul barber

Paul Barber, PhD

University of California, Los Angeles

Improving Outcomes for URM Premedical Students by Nurturing Students’ Passion for Improving Health Disparities

Many underrepresented minority (URM) STEM students that declare as “premed” at UCLA are motivated to become physicians to help fix health disparities that they experienced within their largely minority communities. However, most of these students will not finish their STEM degrees and fewer still will matriculate into medical school. The proposed HHMI Diversity and Health Disparities Program at UCLA is a yearlong support program for entering URM premed students with a passion for medicine and health disparities. The program begins with a seminar series focused on how the environment can shape health disparities and the diversity of scientific disciplines addressing these issues. Next, students explore the breadth of research at UCLA focused on the environmental determinants of health through the creation of short documentary films. The program concludes with a research practicum where students conceive, design and execute group research projects focused on environmental variables contributing to health disparities. By creating a supportive and collaborative community that fosters students’ passion for solving health disparities, this program will help maintain students’ commitment to STEM majors during a vulnerable period when they are most likely to leave science, increasing URM STEM persistence.

julia clarke

Julia Clarke, PhD

University of Texas at Austin

Teaching Curiosity to Question Through an Integrated Curriculum Focused on Tiered Mentorship and Experiential Learning

Preparation for scientific career trajectories of the future arguably requires educational frameworks that encourage designing, experimenting, and exploring. Empowering diverse perspectives and approaches should be a core aim. Recognition of a key role for experiential learning in both course and lab settings has become mainstream. However, scaling these experiences up to allow participation of more, or most, of the undergraduate population at large R1 public universities remains a core challenge. A University of Texas at Austin (UT) program includes three linked initiatives and aims to: (1) Support development of authentic research design skills both within and across traditional disciplines in course and laboratory settings as well as (2) To evaluate modules focused on strengthening scientific self-efficacy and use of written, quantitative and visual expression of data as tool kits for refining project design and (3) To recruit and retain more traditionally-underrepresented groups in the geosciences. The UT Curiosity to Question (CtQ) course model creates a supported context for open-ended inquiry while simultaneously providing graduate students and postdoctoral fellows training in, and a native context for, learning research mentorship skills. Students also develop projects for summer Distributed Learning Academies (DLAs) at partner labs outside of the geosciences. DLAs provide more in depth trans-disciplinary training for the undergraduate students and postdoctoral researchers as well as facilitate idea transfer to other universities.

robert full

Robert Full, PhD

University of California, Berkeley

i4’s Toward Tomorrow Program - Bioinspired Design Realized by Creativity, Collaboration, and Connection

Our goal is to expand the STEM workforce with an early, inspirational, and interdisciplinary experience that fosters inclusive excellence. Using culturally sustaining connections, students will envision a future where their voice is urgently needed for involvement, imagination, invention, and innovation (i4). Our program removes artificially created disciplinary boundaries to extend beyond STEM by including designers, social scientists, and entrepreneurs collaborating in diverse teams while using scientific discoveries to create inventions that lead to new careers, benefit society, and shape our future. Our program connects two recent revolutions by amplifying bioinspired design with the maker movement and its democratizing effects empowering anyone to innovate and change the world. In five years, we will create a program that will catalyze institutional change at the University of California, Berkeley, continuing our forward trajectory of implementing inclusive practices that will persist. We will disseminate a customizable, evidence-based program through a bioinspired design shared community that will energize students to participate in the discovery process where their unique voices are necessary to invent the future.

marla geha

Marla Geha, PhD

Yale University

The Warrior-Scholar Project: Creating an Army of Veteran Scientists

The proposed goal is to increase recruitment and retention of U.S. enlisted military veterans into undergraduate science majors. Veterans represent a diverse and underserved undergraduate population. The Warrior-Scholar Project runs two-week college-preparatory ‘bootcamps’ on university campuses aimed at giving enlisted veterans the skills and confidence needed to succeed in college. Bootcamps are led by enlisted veterans who have already made a successful transition into college, in collaboration with faculty and students from each host institution. Until recently, the program primarily focused on reading and writing skills. In 2016, I designed a science bootcamp for the Warrior-Scholar Project and successfully oversaw a pilot course at Yale University. Here I propose activities that ensure the long-term success of the Warrior-Scholar science program. As an HHMI professor, I propose to (1) help ‘franchise’ the science curriculum to universities across the U.S., (2) create a research fellowship program for Warrior-Scholar science alumni, and (3) further strengthen the community of Warrior-Scholar scientists by improving online alumni resources and running a biennial alumni conference. The Warrior-Scholar Project serves an at risk, but high potential, undergraduate population which is not engaged by other programs in the country.

elizabeth hadly

Elizabeth Hadly, PhD

Stanford University

Fostering Immersive Experiences for Undergraduates to Advance Science in a World of Environmental Change

Stanford University, higher education, and the nation sit at a crossroads. We are facing critical, complex pipeline issues in STEM and diversity, and they are impacting disciplines like biology in new and unforeseen ways that are creating larger consequences in undergraduate science education. Moreover, urgent global issues are demanding a prepared STEM pool of students particularly adept at dealing with and communicating across both disciplinary and national boundaries. While I served as the Senior Associate Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, I learned how important high-impact practices such as study abroad and honors research are for all students, especially in STEM fields. High-impact practices provide early connections with faculty and are especially important for underrepresented groups such as minorities and women. Through the proposed program, students will have a unique opportunity to master the integration of skills that are usually decoupled and siloed within STEM programs: fieldwork, lab work, data analysis, project synthesis, publication, community outreach, science communication and team-building inside and outside of an academic setting. By immersing students and instructors in common, yet internationally diverse field station environments we will also enrich the active learning experience.

Margaret McFall-Ngai

Margaret McFall-Ngai, PhD

University of Hawai'i at Mānoa

It’s the Small Things: Integrating Microbiology into Biology Curricula

The biological sciences are undergoing a revolution with the recognition that the microbial world is the basis of the health of all ecosystems, from tropical rainforests to the human body. This newfound knowledge demands efforts to reformulate research and education, as well as to design mechanisms by which to inform the public of the widespread ramifications of this new view. The goal of this HHMI proposal is to transform the teaching of biology at the undergraduate level by promoting the integration of microbiology and macrobiology into a single, comprehensive ‘systems biology.’ The trajectory of historical development of these subdisciplines has been largely independent. As such, the current structuring of the field is so entrenched, the only way to make progress toward this goal is through education. Thus, I propose to develop an entirely new concept for a biology curriculum. The ideal curriculum would engage leading researchers in the education of future biologists, as well as introduce those in other STEM disciplines to biology, with a presentation of the field in a way that reflects the true nature of the biological world, i.e., as a complex of nested hierarchical biosystems and ecosystems. The proposed HHMI effort focuses on the first steps of this process, the development of the introductory courses for US and international institutions of higher learning.

beth shapiro

Beth Shapiro, PhD

University of California, Santa Cruz


robert wayne

Robert Wayne, PhD

University of California, Los Angeles

eSIE: Environmental DNA for Science Investigation and Education

Understanding the consequences of sustained human population growth on human and natural systems is a research priority in both the environmental and health sciences. The University of California Conservation Genomics Consortium (UCCGC) has pioneered a novel solution to this research challenge that also provides a platform for recruitment and education in STEM fields for thousands of University of California (UC) undergraduates. Spearheaded by co-PIs Robert Wayne (UCLA) and Beth Shapiro (UCSC) and with initial efforts supported by a system-wide grant from the UC President’s office, the UCCGC uses a highly sensitive molecular approach called environmental DNA, or eDNA, to catalog biodiversity in any ecosystem. The results can reveal the complete diversity profile of the ecosystem from microbes to mammals, generating a diversity baseline and, by sampling down a sediment core, allow reconstruction of changes in biodiversity over time. Biotic community diversity feeds back into human health through decomposition of waste, detoxification of pollutants, nutrient recycling and agriculture. First, the education component of eSIE leverages social media, smart phone apps, field trips, and short educational videos to reach a broad undergraduate constituency (thousands of students) with the aim of improving scientific literacy and recruiting diverse students with a wide variety of interests in STEM fields (Tier 1). Second, this experience will be followed by a multidisciplinary course curriculum for a smaller number (hundreds) of first and second year students designed to introduce undergraduates formally to STEM subjects and guide them to advanced course work (Tier 2). Lastly, we will provide authentic research experiences and career guidance for a subset (<100) who have committed to a scientific vocation (Tier 3). Ultimately, the program will generate a large constituency of undergraduates aware of the benefits of scientific research, many of whom will be motivated by their experience to enter and succeed in STEM fields.

keivan stassun

Keivan Stassun, PhD

Vanderbilt University

Improved Retention of Women, Underrepresented Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in the Physical Sciences Through Early Research Immersion

The principal aim of the proposed project is to pilot a model for early and sustained research immersion and mentoring support, with the goal of greatly increasing the retention of women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities in physical sciences majors. Data show that, as freshmen, underrepresented minorities are just as likely as their majority peers to express an interest in physical sciences majors, but are overwhelmingly more likely to switch away from physical sciences majors by their sophomore or junior year. Research suggests that immersive engagement in research, starting very early, can be a key intervention to help these students develop a ‘science identity,’ which is so crucial to persistence in the field. The broader context for the project is that it will leverage an NSF INCLUDES grant and the newly launched Vanderbilt Center for Autism & Innovation to serve as a crucial first link in a longer chain of experiences and connections, including deliberate bridging from undergraduate to graduate research and beyond, leading to a more diverse and inclusive professoriate and STEM workforce: the ultimate vision is an end-to-end pipeline—from freshman to PhD to postdoc and then into the faculty or workforce—for women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities in the physical sciences.

carl wieman

Carl Wieman, PhD

Stanford University

Assessing What Really Matters in Science Education

The goal of the proposed work is to provide a methodology and tools to begin to answer at a variety of different levels and disciplines, how well prepared students are to (1) transfer their knowledge into novel discipline-specific circumstances, and (2) learn and use relevant new information. In the process, we will also develop a general design template for others to use in creating such assessment tools of flexible expertise. Then we will use those tests to begin to examine how different forms of instruction impact the ability of the student in both of these areas, on both short (within term or in adjacent terms of school) and long (through undergraduate into post-graduate education) time scales. This work will be led by Carl Wieman who has worked extensively in science education research across multiple science and engineering departments, with a particular focus on the nature of disciplinary expertise and how it is best learned, taught, and assessed. This will be a collaborative effort with Professor Daniel Schwartz, who is a leading cognitive psychologist who has pioneered the thinking and research on preparation for future learning. They will be joined by an interdisciplinary team assembled for this project composed of higher education researchers, data analytics experts, and faculty in medicine and the science disciplines of interest to provide necessary disciplinary expertise.

erika zavaleta

Erika Zavaleta, PhD

University of California, Santa Cruz

An Inclusive, Inquiry-Based Pathway for Undergraduate Retention and Research Readiness in Ecology and Conservation Biology

The opportunity is clear for inquiry-based, explicitly inclusive ecology education to increase participation and propel excellence by undergraduates in STEM fields. First, retention of intended science majors in STEM fields remains low: below 50% in general, and below 25% for African-American, Latino and Native American/Pacific Islander (URM) students. Meanwhile, despite evidence that inquiry-based instruction enhances achievement, retention, racial inclusion and research readiness, inquiry- and discovery-based undergraduate STEM opportunities remain relatively rare. At R-1 institutions, where a research emphasis in science departments can isolate undergraduates from faculty activities, more student involvement - especially of URMs - in inquiry and research is critically needed. Finally, ecology lags other life sciences in inclusion and diversity. I am a first-generation Latina woman on the senior biology faculty at UCSC with a strong research program and an active commitment to building inclusive, inquiry-based science education for undergraduates. While most inquiry-based teaching emphasizes prescribed lab experiences, my teaching emphasizes collaborative, field-based engagement in the start-to-finish process of scientific research – from generating the research question and study design to communicating findings. A well-structured field research course can do two things: inspire and prepare students for scientific careers, and create shared experiences and relationships that sustain students in majors that may otherwise feel disconnected from their backgrounds and previous experiences. URM participation in field-based science courses is especially low, which has led many to conclude that field courses are not a path to increased STEM diversity. I contend that we have it backwards: other, surmountable barriers, like cost, schedules, information, specialized equipment, and a lack of role models on staff, reduce URM participation. Once we enable diverse student groups to pursue these experiences, they can propel URM leadership, voice and cultural change in our life sciences majors.

For More Information

Jim Keeley 301.215.8858 keeleyj@hhmi.org