June 18, 2014
More than 3,700 additional U-M undergraduates will get real-world research experience over the next five years through a $1.5 million science, technology, engineering and math education grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Initially, the grant will let professors restructure the lab sections of two introductory science courses — Biology 173 and Chemistry 125/126. More courses will be involved in future years.
Rather than playing out textbook exercises, students in these classes will work with a U-M faculty research lab to design and carry out experiments that make new knowledge and could lead to published scholarship.
"We want students to see the whole process of discovery, from when we don't know the answer to when we get an answer. That's the real excitement of science," said Deborah Goldberg, the Elzada U. Clover Collegiate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology who leads the program.
University leaders have learned through the 25-year-old Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program that exposing students to research early leads more of them to degrees in STEM fields.
"In the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, for example, we've found that more than half of the students who initially say they're interested in these fields don't go on to graduate in them," Goldberg said.
"As someone who cares deeply about liberal arts, I have to say that we're not trying to keep students from their passions. But we don't want to lose people because they weren't engaged in their introductory classes and therefore miss out on studies that they could be passionate about."
The new program will dramatically increase the number of students who are able to have research experiences. UROP, which individually pairs students with labs, served more than 1,400 students this year and involved hundreds of faculty members. But still, there's a waiting list, and it's hard to expand quickly, Goldberg said.
"Eventually, the grant from HHMI will allow us to engage a similar number of students each year, with the involvement of only eight faculty research groups," Goldberg said.
Beginning in fall 2015, the chemistry course will partner with Stephan Maldonado, associate professor of chemistry, on projects in solar power and batteries, and Kerri Pratt, assistant professor of chemistry, on projects in snow chemistry and climate change.
The biology course will work with Thomas Schmidt, professor of internal medicine, microbiology and immunology, ecology and evolutionary biology, and civil and environmental engineering.
Schmidt studies the human microbiome — the countless microscopic organisms that live on and in our bodies. It's a frontier in medicine and science, as researchers are coming to understand the role these germs have on evolution and health.
Schmidt says the students will help steer his research agenda. In the class, they'll help determine which microbiome to focus on — perhaps the mouth, the skin or the digestive tract — and what questions to ask about it. They might choose to see how changing diet can influence gut bacteria, for example, which have been found to play a role in obesity, cancer and mental health, to name just a few conditions.
"They'll be participating in research on contemporary projects," said Schmidt, who majored in biology at U-M years ago. "We won't be repeating experiments where the outcome is known. They'll be engaging in cutting edge work that they can read about in the New York Times."