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Richard Losick

What if a famous professor came to you and offered to pay you to do research at a Harvard laboratory with one of the world’s most renowned investigators – and you were only a college freshman and even had a poor science background to boot? What if that professor also promised to pay your room and board in the summer, and to cover your contribution to financial aid so you wouldn’t have to spend time selling pizza:  he wanted you to do research year round, ideally for your entire tenure at Harvard. Too good to be true? For about eight Harvard College students a year, that offer was the real deal, thanks to MCB’s Richard Losick, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor and the Maria Moors Cabot Professor of Biology in MCB.

Losick was one of twenty HHMI Professors who each received a $1 million, four-year educational grant in 2002.  These grants were designed, as HHMI put it, to give professors free rein “to bring the creativity they have shown in the lab to the undergraduate classroom” and “to make science more engaging for undergraduates”. Only eight of the HHMI Professors received renewals this April to further leverage their projects, and Losick was among them.  He was allotted another $1/2 million by HHMI.

With the first grant, Losick’s tri-part plan involved first, improving teaching of the introductory molecular biology course Biological Sciences 52 (BS52); second, creating a new course, MCB100, an undergraduate experimental biology program in which teams of students tackle research with faculty support; and finally, a program to introduce freshmen with disadvantaged science backgrounds to sustained, inquiry-based research.

The first two initiatives are now largely self-sustaining; the innovations to BS52 are being carried forward and MCB100 has become part of the educational fabric at Harvard. Losick will focus the bulk of his new resources on disadvantaged students, in an initiative he calls “FEEDS”, for Freshman from Economically and Educationally Disadvantaged Backgrounds in Science. 

Infusing Undergraduates with the Spirit of Research

Prof. Losick suspects that HHMI chose him for the original award because he shares their commitment to both research and teaching. He also shares their alarm at the prevalent cookbook approach to teaching science, and had already set about to do something to correct this by incorporating more inquiry-based methods and experimental research into introductory biology courses.

“It’s so easy to teach science badly, as if it were downloading facts into students,” says Losick. “So many students are enthusiastic about science as they enter college, but we kill their interest by presenting science as an accumulation of facts. They confuse taking tests with doing science.” Also traditional laboratory courses don’t simulate science as it is practiced. Rather than offering truly open-ended inquiry and experimentation, they rely on recipes that thousands of students have followed before in hopes of obtaining the same, invariable results.

To give students a taste of real experimental research, Losick, whose own work involves microbial development and gene regulation, and Robert Lue, Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Biological Sciences, created a new inquiry-based molecular biology course, the resoundingly successful MCB100. MCB100 students work in small groups on a semester-long project of current research interest, such as characterizing the interaction between a tumor suppressor and small molecules, or using systemic RNAi to study the worm C. elegans. To simulate the reporting practices of science, at the end of the term students make oral presentations and write individual reports modeled after the NIH grant format.

The course has become so popular that it is oversubscribed and also has been attracting non-majors. “I have a sense that its approach will be emulated in other courses and departments,” Losick comments. “The HHMI money has catalyzed something new that has become self-sustaining, which was one of their goals.”

For Losick, a key challenge in his introductory course on molecular biology, BS52, is teaching intricate and dynamic processes like DNA replication, translation, and recombination. This is traditionally done with static diagrams, but Losick has developed a series of computer animations to make these processes come alive. In these videos, the enzymes, polymerases, transcription factors, and signaling molecules that drive the mechanisms are more readily seen in their dynamic relations. His students access these tools online for study and review – and so can teachers and students anywhere with access to the free website. “That helps meet HHMI’s goal of disseminating our new pedagogical initiatives beyond the host institution, so that undergraduates everywhere may benefit,” Losick comments.

A Counter-Intuitive Strategy Works

With MCB100 now well-established, the new grant money will largely support the third, and for Losick most personally rewarding aspect, of the HHMI-funded project, the FEEDS program for disadvantaged students. “I interpret the term ‘disadvantaged’ very broadly,” Losick explains. As well as members of minorities and underprivileged communities, his recruits could be refugees from a war-torn country, middle-class honor students from small, rural high schools with limited science offerings, or children from families who did not encourage the study of science.

“The most challenging part is identifying these ‘disadvantaged’ students,” Losick says. “I use a counter-intuitive strategy. Unlike most selection processes at Harvard, I don’t necessarily seek out the hot shots.” He scours the incoming freshman class for underachievers, looking for a mismatch between a student’s enthusiasm for science and the performance on placement exams. For this, he enlists the admissions office, which knows about the students’ home and high school situations, and freshman proctors and advisors. With a short list of names in hand, he pitches his program, invites the students to write an essay about their interest in scientific research and interviews those with the most compelling essays. He accepts six to eight each year.

Then Losick plays matchmaker, finding a research colleague who helps the student design and conduct a research project that, ideally, will last the four undergraduate years. “We’re very lucky to have a wealth of topflight science labs not only here at Harvard College but also at the Medical School,  Harvard-affiliated hospitals, and the Harvard School of Public Health.”

Students do not receive course credit for the research undertaking, but their projects segue into senior theses, while HHMI funds relieve them of work-study obligations. Of the 24 students who have entered the program, 22 are continuing, including a creative writing major. Some work in labs in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Harvard Medical School. One student who entered FEEDS as a sophomore graduated in 2005 and is currently researching AIDS at Stanford. Six more students graduate in May 2006 with plans for medical school, graduate school in science fields, or staying on for one more year of lab research.

Going forward, some of the FEEDS students will also participate in Harvard’s new Program for Research in Science and Engineering (PRISE) for undergraduates engaged in summer research. PRISE covers summer room and board, freeing HHMI funds to organize retreats and for programs that help form a community for mentoring participants, both within and beyond Harvard. He will invite alumni of the program back to meet with current students, and encourage upper classmen to discuss their work with younger students.

“I’m happy with the program as it is,” Losick says. “I want to sustain it when the HHMI funding runs out.” Before the next four years are up, Losick hopes to have an endowment for the program from Harvard alumni.

“It’s a privilege to teach undergraduates at Harvard,” Losick reflects regarding his involvement in the HHMI Professors Program. “We attract such enthusiastic students. It’s a great joy to teach them at the introductory level when they are still formative and we can have a big influence and stimulate their enthusiasm about science. Doing research and teaching undergraduates are both enormously rewarding. I can’t imagine doing one without the other.”

View Richard Losick’s Faculty Profile