Sunday, March 24

UCLA receives two $1 million undergraduate science grants


Professors to use funds to produce more research opportunities

Give a professor a million dollars, and he’ll change the
world of undergraduate science education.

Two UCLA professors are preparing to do just that thanks to a
new program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which
awarded $1 million grants to each of 20 professors in 19
universities across the nation.

Doctors Utpal Banerjee and Robert B. Goldberg, both professors
of the molecular, cell and developmental biology department at
UCLA, have accepted HHMI’s challenge to create programs that
will improve the way science is taught to undergraduates.

“Teaching of undergraduates tends to be undervalued at
research universities,” said Peter Bruns, vice president for
grants and special programs at HHMI.

The goal of the “HHMI Professors” program, Bruns
continued, is to support a “synergistic interaction between
research and undergraduate education.”

With the grant money, Banerjee and Goldberg will create programs
that will get undergraduate students involved in research earlier
in their university careers.

Banerjee, who also serves as chair of the MCD biology
department, is designing a new series of courses that will rely on
primary reading materials, guest lectures by physicians and
hands-on research to “teach (students) how to think about
problems.”

“(Banerjee) really likes to get students involved,”
said third-year MCD biology student Maya Narayanan.

Narayanan, who has been working in Banerjee’s lab for a
year, adds that these courses are a good idea because “you
don’t have to go through all the steps, (such as) finding out
whether researchers are taking on students. It’s a class. You
just sign up for it.”

Banerjee’s students will be working with the fruit fly
Drosophila ““ an ideal “model system” for studying
the nature of cell-to-cell communication and gene expression
because its rapid reproduction rate produces many flies very
quickly, and because all of its genes are known.

What scientists don’t know ““ and what
Banerjee’s undergraduates will be trying to find out ““
is how all of those genes function.

By removing genes in the developing fly and noting the mutations
their actions produce, students in Banerjee’s courses will
generate publishable data, which, according to Banerjee, will be
part of the database used by researchers worldwide.

“This is not a canned set of experiments,” said an
emphatic Banerjee. These findings are important, he explains,
because “genes are pretty much the same in fruit flies as
they are in humans.”

Determining how the genes function for Drosophila may help
scientists to better understand and treat human genetic
disorders.

The courses are open to all undergraduate students, whether they
are first-year students right out of high school AP biology classes
or fifth-years preparing for graduate school.

“We want to have people who don’t necessarily know
what they’re doing,” Banerjee said. “The greener,
the better.”

Banerjee also welcomes students from less science-oriented
departments of campus.

“Research should be a part of everyone’s education,
whether you’re a lawyer or a doctor or a journalist,”
he said.

Goldberg, co-chair of the Seeds Institute, feels the same as
Banerjee in expanding the opportunities and “sharing the
excitement” of science.

He will offer an interactive course geared toward non-science
undergraduates, “Genetic Engineering in Medicine, Agriculture
and Law”, with a lab component that uses state-of-the-science
genomic technologies to uncover significant genes.

Starting this winter quarter, students will carry on original
research to find out which genes control the earliest stages of
gene development.

“They will know what it is like to work in a real lab and
find out for themselves what science is like and how research is
carried out,” Goldberg said.

“They will even eventually present their results at
conferences and contribute to original publications,” he
added.

Undergraduates will not only have more real lab experience, but
the chance to do what is normally only reserved for graduate
students.

Goldberg will also be teaching undergraduates “how to
teach” as teaching assistants, exclusively using
undergraduates who have already taken his courses.

Professor Goldberg’s aim is

to be “as creative as possible,” both in his lab
research and in his unorthodox teaching methods. He has been using
multimedia “before people even knew what the name was,”
along with a socratic style of student-teacher interaction in a
continuing age of lectures and passive note taking.

“But what really sets him apart from other professors is
that (he) truly enjoys teaching,” said Aycha Erbilgin, a
fourth-year MCD biology student and current student of
Goldberg.

This contagious enthusiasm and creativity will allow him to
share with students the excitement he has for the process of
discovery and to make science “come alive” for his
students.

While there are no real plans to repeat the “HHMI
Professors” program at the moment, Stephen Barkanic, program
director for Undergraduate Science Education, said if the
professors’ projects effectively improve student learning,
funding may continue in the future.

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