Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology

RICHARD LOSICK: GETTING FROM HHMI, GIVING BACK TO MR. HILL

by Cathryn Delude

September 9th, 2010

With a renewed award from the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Professorship Program under his belt, MCB’s Richard Losick is as prominent a teacher of science as he is a research scientist. Losick, who is the Maria Moors Cabot Professor of Biology, was among the first cadre of 20 researchers in the Professorship Program that HHMI established in 2002 to improve undergraduate science education. He is one of the fewer whose grant was renewed in 2006 and now again in 2010. All told, he has received $2,100,000 to support his two related, passionately held goals, to diversify science and to electrify its teaching so that even undergraduates can taste the thrill of discovery – and be inspired to choose majors, if not careers, in science.

 

The new award of $600,000 over four years will expand beyond Harvard’s borders two programs Losick developed with the previous grants: IDEAS (Increasing Diversity and Education Access to Sciences), and hands-on undergraduate courses that provide undergraduate opportunities for long-term research projects. Losick will also use the grant to develop a handbook as a mechanism for taking these programs nationwide.

Both programs are antidotes to the tendency of students to confuse doing coursework with actually doing science. If, as Losick experienced as an undergraduate, “students can discover something new, however modest, that no one else on planet Earth knew before, then this rewarding experience helps them see the value of the scientific concepts they are learning in their courses.”

His commitment to diversity also derives from his early experience, when he had an inspiring high school science teacher named Mr. Hill, who was black. “I always wanted to give back to Mr. Hill.” Also, Losick says, many important scientific advances have come from increasing the representation of women – “Women are at the pinnacle of achievement in life sciences, and it’s sweeping across chemistry and physics” – and more advances will come with more diversity across the racial, ethnic, economic, and geographic spectrum.

Seeding IDEAS in Other Academic Pastures

In IDEAS (a newly adopted name for the program formerly known as FEEDS), Losick works with the admission office and undergraduate advisors to select about eight students a year who come from educationally or economically disadvantaged backgrounds and enter Harvard with a strong interest in science. Such students are often at risk for dropping out of science after taking large, and sometimes impersonal, introductory courses. Losick plays “matchmaker” to place these students in research labs in a Harvard school or affiliated hospital where they undertake multi-year projects that can culminate in their senior theses. A postdoctoral or advanced graduate researcher in the lab becomes a student’s mentor, helping with all aspects of life at Harvard. Students in the program are called Harvard HHMI Research Scholars, and they receive a stipend, funded by the HHMI grant, so they can devote time to research rather than to a part-time or summer job. The program also builds a supportive community among IDEAS students and alumni, mentors, and faculty.

“Now I want to seed IDEAS at other universities,” Losick says. To start, he is identifying universities with limited resources, diverse student bodies, and passionate faculty. The HHMI grant will provide research stipends to IDEAS students at those institutions and will sponsor their attendance at Harvard IDEAS events, including the spring retreat.

Learning by Doing and Discovering

Losick believes that the key elements to effective science education boil down to two elements: ownership and discovery. To that end, he and MCB colleague Rob Lue used the first HHMI grant to develop a hands-on MCB course, now called Life Sciences 100, that jettisoned traditional “cookbook recipe” lab procedures for true experiments, in which small teams of undergraduate students can make actual discoveries in a semester-long project.

Losick also incorporates ownership and discovery in the laboratory component of his own, more traditional, introductory molecular biology course. Small teams of students start with a protein implicated in cancer, and they try to discover what other protein interacts with it. “They get to own that protein and learn something new from it. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

With the construction of the new Northwest Building, Losick led the effort to create a new and larger facility for housing Life Sciences 100 and extending the model to other departments and interdisciplinary areas, including Chemistry, Bioengineering, Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. At the same time he and his committee helped to design the new Jeremy R. Knowles Teaching Laboratory in Northwest, a flexible space that can accommodate hands-on learning in a wide range of disciplines.

Handbook for Teaching, Reaching Out, and Assessing

To take these initiatives nationwide, Losick will develop a handbook that describes effective lab experiences in life science and other disciplines. The handbook will also incorporate strategies for implementing IDEAS programs nationwide, including lessons learned from Harvard’s experience with this effort and the rationale for increasing the diversity of students in science. Losick also plans to go on the road and drum up enthusiasm for these programs at other institutions.

His most daunting task, he says, is incorporating assessment into the handbook. “We need to show that these programs actually work. As scientists, we have criteria for judging whether something works, but as teachers we don’t.” He would ideally like to engage schools of education in helping defined assessment methods for college-level science teaching. One metric could be, for example, how many IDEAS students go on to concentrate in science. It’s high: of 30 IDEAS graduates so far, 29 majored in science or engineering, and most are pursuing advanced degrees. “But that’s from a carefully selected group and there was no control,” Losick admits. “But at least we are doing no harm.” Given HHMI’s renewed vote of confidence in his effort, it is probably fair to say he is doing much good indeed.

View Richard Losick's Faculty Profile