Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology

ANDREW MURRAY: MAGPIE, ROMANTIC, HHMI PROFESSOR

by Cathryn Delude

June 30th, 2014

Andrew Murray

Andrew Murray is one of 15 new Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professors, selected from among applicants from 109 invited institutions. The prestigious HHMI Professorship Program provides a five-year, $1 million grant to “accomplished research scientists who also are deeply committed to making science more engaging for undergraduates.” Murray’s grant will support an ambitious new yearlong curriculum, Integrated Science (IS), which melds biology, mathematics, physics, chemistry and computer science.

The IS curriculum is designed for motivated freshmen of diverse backgrounds, with no particular requirement other than an unbridled enthusiasm for science. “We are seeking students who are motivated about science regardless of how educationally humble their background, who are smart, and above all who are not afraid to fail,” Murray says.

Murray already wears several hats. Recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences (read our story here), he is the Herschel Smith Professor of Molecular Genetics, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Director of FAS Center for Systems Biology. (A die-hard Red Sox fan who attends 20 games a year, he would also like to wear the hat of Red Sox Manager.) In the past, he served on Harvard's General Education committee. He also directs the Bauer Fellows program, which includes independent scientists who spend five years at Harvard after their PhDs and run small research groups. Students in the IS curriculum will conduct original research in the labs of Bauer Fellows and other faculty in the various disciplines.

Murray’s own research explores genetics and evolution using yeast. His lab is exploring such questions as: How does symbiosis evolve between organisms? How does a balance of ‘selfishness and generosity’ (e.g., secreting versus uptake of amino acids) evolve within a species? How does the ‘division of labor’ (e.g., germline versus soma cells) evolve in multi-cellular organisms? Do cells know how fast they're growing?

Murray is the second HHMI Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Richard Losick was among the first HHMI Professors appointed in 2002, and his grant was renewed in 2006 and 2010. (Read our story here.)

An Ever-Curious Magpie
According to HHMI, the innovative approaches of the 40 previous HHMI Professors “are infusing undergraduate science with the excitement and rigor of scientific research, and are becoming models for fundamental reform of the way undergraduate science is taught at research universities.” (Read more from the HHMI about this program below.)

Murray wants to impart to students “the romance, the aesthetics, the thrill” of learning as much as possible about nature. To him, “successfully conveying a complicated idea for the first time to students whose thirst for knowledge is palpable is like that special moment in an aria when the hair literally stands up on the back your neck.”  (He’s a die-hard opera fan, too.)

To make that moment happen in the classroom, he believes a teacher must be actively engaged in research. Having grown up in England with his American parents, he felt the some of that magic in his high school chemistry teacher. But as a Biochemistry undergraduate at Cambridge in the UK, his professors were not currently conducting research and the famous researchers there, including Francis Crick, did not teach.

After graduating with a degree in biochemistry, he joined Jack Szostak’s lab at Harvard Medical School in 1978 for a Ph.D. in Cellular and Developmental Biology. “It was one of the first interdisciplinary programs, and its absence of intellectual boundaries and enormous administrative flexibility is responsible for me being the intellectual dilettante that I am today,” Murray says. “I’m a magpie, constantly noticing bright shining objects out of the corner of my eye and picking them up to play with.” After a post-doc and then a faculty position at University of California, San Francisco, he returned to Harvard University in 2000, attracted to prospect of working with evolutionary biologists, and also with physicists interested in biology.

Abolishing Boundaries
Once settled at Harvard, he wanted his teaching to also explore the intersection between life science, chemistry, physics and math, and to have the course be accessible to students in each of the concentrations. The upshot was one course that he spearheaded, the first (upper-division) systems biology course at Harvard, and another where he was part of the team that created Life Science 1A, which integrates chemistry and biology. At that time, folding in physics was too ambitious, given the various concentration requirements.

Now, his Integrated Science curriculum builds upon and expands these innovations, adding physics, math, and computer science to the mix.

The curriculum involves the equivalent of two courses each semester and will emphasize problem solving, original research, and the use of modern computer methods to simulate scenarios and analyze data. The progressively more complex material, which Murray has mapped out for each week of the year, is like a fugue in which a theme introduced in one week is successively interwoven in later weeks with new variations. His goal is to “abolish the disciplinary boundaries between the branches of natural science and rapidly introduce students to the joys and frustrations of original research.”

Each section of the course will be co-taught by one biologist and one physicist or mathematician. The coursework will also take advantage of the groundbreaking Harvard X program. (Read our stories here and here.) Starting in the 2015-2016 academic year, the IS program will accept 25 student by interview, and will add to the class size in subsequent years as resources expand. Murray hopes that the HHMI grant will catalyze a permanent investment by Harvard in this curriculum.

Boot Camps
As part of the IS program, students will participate in a two-week boot camp at the beginning of each semester. In one, students will learn how to do an experiment. “Many students will think they already know how, so we will have them design a deceptively simple experiment, such as measuring how fast a population of yeast grows, to help them realize how difficult it is to accurately measure things in biology.” In the second, computational boot camp, students will learn, for example, how to develop computer simulations of a random event and analyze the results.

At the end of the year, students in the IS program will be prepared for a range of concentrations: Biomedical Engineering, Chemical and Physical Biology, Chemistry, Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology, Human Evolutionary Biology, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Neurobiology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Applied Mathematics, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Engineering Sciences, Environmental Science and Public Policy, Mechanical Engineering, Physics, and Statistics.

A Skeptical Romantic
Ask Murray how science should be done and he replies with his motto: “By any means necessary. We need to actually teach the means – the fundamental concepts of biochemistry, physics, mathematics, computation, etc. But we need to inculcate the idea that if you think some other non-traditional means might be helpful but you don’t know how to do it, then you’d best go off and learn it.” Ideally, this course will give students the means to learn new means too.

Ultimately, Murray hopes the students will learn to embrace failure (and to learn from it), become intellectually brave, and acquire the unusual combination of romanticism and skepticism. “In science, when something seems attractive, especially if it is controversial, you have to believe in order to do the first set of experiments. You have to be gentle and caressing,” he explains. “But the moment you think you might be right, you have to become the harshest, most analytical, bloody-minded skeptic to find out all the ways you have lulled yourself into a false certainly. If you don’t do it, someone else will.”

Where does all this romanticism in such a rigorous scientist come from? Blame his parents. They first met at the legendary Trevi Fountain in Rome and married three weeks months later in Naples. That’s the kind of spontaneity you sometimes want in the research lab too.


More from HHMI on the Professorships:

HHMI professors are accomplished research scientists who are making science more engaging for undergraduates. By providing HHMI professors with the funds and support to implement their ideas, HHMI hopes to empower these individuals to create new models for teaching science at research universities. The newly selected group – who represent 13 universities across the country -- will join the community of HHMI professors who are working together to change undergraduate science education in the United States.
 
“Exceptional teachers have a lasting impact on students,” said HHMI President Robert Tjian. “These scientists are at the top of their respective fields and they bring the same creativity and rigor to science education that they bring to their research.”
 
Much of the responsibility for sustaining excellence in science falls on the nation’s research universities, home to some of the world’s best scientists, and attended by some of the nation’s most talented students. The quality of universities depends on their faculty.
 
In an era of new business models for higher education, increasing pressures on research funding, new emphases on student enrollment and retention, and new technologies for delivering education, science faculty members are challenged to navigate a complex course. While the traditions of science often emphasize the singular accomplishments of an individual scientist, each faculty member is expected to excel simultaneously in multiple arenas, balancing the demands of research and teaching.
 
“Science faculty members who can successfully advance their research and teaching goals through creative integration of the two are both a valued asset to their departments and important models for their colleagues,” said Sean B. Carroll, vice president for science education at HHMI...
 
“Students benefit most when scientists draw on their own interests and expertise in their educational activities,” said David J. Asai, senior director in science education at HHMI. “And many of the HHMI professors have told us that their research programs have benefited from their educational efforts.” To support that synergy, the new professors can apply up to 25 percent of their HHMI funding to support research activities in the context of student learning.

Source: HHMI News Release

View Andrew Murray's Faculty Profile