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Long-Term, Hands-on Research Experiences Engage Students from Diverse Backgrounds

Research Summary

Richard Losick has created two programs, Increasing Diversity and Education Access to Sciences (IDEAS) and Life Sciences 100, which provide undergraduate students access to long-term, hands-on research experiences with Harvard University faculty. With his most recent award, he continued assessing the effectiveness of these initiatives and worked with three other institutions to develop similar programs. His goals are to continue to assess the programs' effectiveness and help other institutions develop similar programs.

We used our previous HHMI award to develop two programs aimed at providing pathways for undergraduates to engage in hands-on research with top scientists at Harvard. The Increasing Diversity and Education Access to Sciences (IDEAS) Program, formerly called FEEDS, provides a unique entry point for first-year students who have had limited opportunities to pursue their interest in science. IDEAS students are placed with professors in host laboratories where they receive mentoring and annual stipend support for long-term, hands-on research projects.

A key feature of the IDEAS program is creating a community of students and faculty that provides critical mentoring and support for freshman as they step into research projects at the start of their undergraduate education. IDEAS mentors include faculty from a variety of departments across campus who are committed to opening their labs to incoming freshman. Junior and senior IDEAS students serve as role models for the newest students. An annual retreat helps sustain a wider community that includes IDEAS alumni, some of whom come to the retreats to speak about their current activities in graduate and medical school.

The IDEAS program has been successful in supporting the persistence of diverse students in the sciences, including minority students who have traditionally been underrepresented in the sciences at Harvard. In the past seven years, over 50 students have participated in the IDEAS program. Of 30 IDEAS graduates, 29 completed undergraduate degrees in science or engineering fields, and most are currently pursing advanced degrees in science or medicine. The principal message is that long-term, hands-on research experiences are transformative for students who come to college with limited opportunities or access to research laboratories.

With my most recent award I transformed IDEAS into a national program by (1) adapting the structure and principles of IDEAS to other institutions and (2) extending the community of IDEAS alumni (both students and faculty mentors) beyond Harvard to build a national network to support underrepresented students at multiple institutions. I continue to build a national network by working with IDEAS alumni to develop relationships with programs on other campuses dedicated to supporting minority student success in science.

The Life Sciences 100 course (previously called the Undergraduate Experimental Biology Program) was created in 2004 to provide broader access to research for Harvard undergraduates. Teams of students experience how science is done through the practice of experimental inquiry in faculty laboratories. Projects are selected from a variety of fields, including microbiology, biochemistry, synthetic biology, chemical biology, cell biology, and neurobiology. To support the popular program, a new cross-disciplinary facility has recently been created that spans the biological sciences, bioengineering, and chemistry disciplines and accommodates twice as many students each semester. Life Sciences 100 establishes a new paradigm at Harvard for how undergraduates can engage in ongoing research in faculty labs, have positive mentoring experiences, and develop greater independence as members of an undergraduate research community.

More than 250 students have participated in Life Sciences 100 since it was launched, many continuing research in a faculty laboratory after the course. Graduates have gone on to medical school, M.D./Ph.D. programs, or other graduate training in science, technology, engineering, or medical fields. A key goal for the future is to communicate to a national audience of educators the wealth of accumulated data on hands-on, cross-disciplinary science learning in the Life Sciences 100 course. To this end, we plan to develop a monograph on hands-on learning, with chapters on facilities development, personnel, and types of projects; the importance of ownership and discovery in hands-on learning; and methods for mentoring undergraduates. The monograph will be supported by data on the impact the program has had on students, particularly women and underrepresented minorities. We will work with colleagues to adapt our research paradigm to other campuses, and will establish a central repository for data revealing the overall impact of this approach at different institutions.

Research in the Losick Lab

My research interests include RNA polymerase, gene transcription and its control, and development in microorganisms. I have a special interest in the developmental process of spore formation in the soil bacterium B. subtilis. Sporulation is governed by a cascade of five developmental sigma factors that appear in a temporally and spatially ordered sequence over the course of development. A hallmark of sporulation is the formation of an asymmetrically positioned division septum that divides the developing cell into dissimilar-sized progeny cells that express different sets of genes under the control of cell-specific sigma factors. Among the questions that my lab group is addressing are how cells divide asymmetrically, how asymmetric division gives rise to differential gene expression, how the progeny cells communicate with each other, and how gene expression is coupled to landmark events in morphogenesis. Underlying the answers to these questions are proteins that localize to particular sites in the cell, often in a highly dynamic manner. An important challenge is understanding how proteins determine their proper subcellular address and how their function is tied to their location. A recent area of excitement is the capacity of B. subtilis to form architecturally complex communities called biofilms.

Last updated May 2014