Yi Lu wants to capture the natural curiosity freshmen hold about the world and nurture it instead of letting the usual and ordinary science courses dampen it. “Most freshmen are full of curiosity about phenomena around us,” he says.…
Yi Lu wants to capture the natural curiosity freshmen hold about the world and nurture it instead of letting the usual and ordinary science courses dampen it. “Most freshmen are full of curiosity about phenomena around us,” he says. “However, many of those curiosities are quenched by the rigid, sequential instruction mode.” Such teaching can discourage undergraduates from considering science majors. As an HHMI Professor, Lu wants to preserve the early interest of undergraduates by allowing them to design studies based on scientific topics that interest them. Working with the lecturer, a teaching postdoctoral fellow, graduate teaching assistants and senior undergraduate students, the beginners will design plans for investigation of a topic of their interests—including but not limited to performing undergraduate research in a laboratory,” he says. They will also give presentations on their findings, as “real” scientists do. “In this way, we wish to bring meaning to taking science courses and sustain the student’s curiosity,” he explains. Dr. Yi Lu graduated with a BS in Chemistry from Peking University in 1986 and received his PhD from UCLA in 1992 under Dr. Joan S. Valentine. After two years of postdoctoral research in Dr. Harry B. Gray’s group at the Caltech, Dr. Lu started his independent career in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in 1994. He is now Jay and Ann Schenck Professor in the Departments of Chemistry, Biochemistry, Materials Science and Engineering, and Bioengineering. He is also a member of the Center for Biophysics and Computational Biology and Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. His research interests lie at the interface between chemistry and biology. His group is developing new chemical approaches to provide deeper insight into biological systems. At the same time, they take advantage of recently developed biological tools to advance many areas in chemistry. During the past 20 years, Lu has invited more than 100 undergraduate students to work in his lab. “Most of them told me how the curiosity-driven research going on in the lab makes their courses so much more meaningful,” he says. The HHMI project is built upon the experience of these undergraduate students. A native of China, Lu grew up in Tianjin, a coastal city in the north, southeast of Beijing. “As a child, like many other children, I dreamed of being an engineer (my father was an engineer) or a surgeon,” he says. “I picked chemistry as a major for a very simple, maybe silly reason: chemistry was the only course that I scored high in without having to study much in high school.” He was drawn to his current research while a first-year graduate student. He remembers the exact moment, during a meeting with his PhD adviser, Professor Joan S. Valentine at UCLA. She showed him a colorful protein structure on a computer screen. Wearing 3-D goggles, he was able to rotate the protein like an object in his hands and realized that scientists can now change the properties (such as color and activity) of a protein to those of a brand new protein by replacing only one or a few selected residues of the protein. “Suddenly, I realized that this was what I had been looking for—the most exciting engineering at the smallest scale and the ultimate surgery at the molecular level,” he says.