Research groups are the backbone of any scientist's lab. A senior faculty member heads a team comprising postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, research associates and occasionally, undergraduates. Together they plan experiments, share the work and analyze the results, and the progress they make is a synergistic product of their constant interaction.
As an HHMI Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Graham Walker wants to establish an education group analogous to the research group in his lab. Mentored by Walker, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduates will work together to develop Web-based curricular materials and take-home experiments designed to excite and engage introductory biology students. "For example," Walker says, "we might assign each student a small set of genes when the course begins, and then have them use their genes in assignments concerning protein structure, genetics and evolution."
Walker calls the education-group concept a new model for active research scientists who love teaching as he does. From it could grow a cadre of young researchers who share a passion for teaching. Also, as in a research group, synergism can generate a product that is more than the sum of its parts.
"I am lucky to be at an institution that champions undergraduate teaching," says Walker, a professor of biology who studies how cells respond to DNA damage and the biological interdependence of certain bacteria and plants. "Even so, there is only so much time. Throughout my career, I have balanced on a tightrope between devoting time to my research career and my efforts in undergraduate education."
A leader in his field, Walker has published more than 230 scientific articles and a textbook, and recently received an American Cancer Society Research professorship, one of only 18 in the country. He has served as editor in chief of the Journal of Bacteriology. Yet he continued to teach introductory biology, and he has headed HHMI's undergraduate research program at MIT since it began in 1989.
"This HHMI professorship gives me the resources to leverage the hours I have always spent teaching," Walker says. Training undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs to become effective scientist-educators and creating Web-based animations, virtual labs and experiments that will be made available at no cost through MIT's OpenCourseWare project can potentially reach thousands of biology students in this country and around the world, he explains.