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May 24, 2012

$800,000 Grant Will Help Prepare Students to be Leaders in Science Research and Medicine

With major support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Lafayette will make its already strong biology program even more effective in preparing students to be leaders in science research and medicine.

A $800,000 grant will enable Lafayette to expand the number of real-world research experiences for students and increase the diversity of students who study science. The funding also will support faculty and curriculum development.

“We are very grateful to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. This support will significantly strengthen Lafayette’s ability to educate the next generation of researchers, educators, entrepreneurs, and leaders in biology and the life sciences,” said Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss.

“HHMI is investing in [Lafayette and other schools that were awarded grants] because they have shown they are superb incubators of new ideas and models that might be replicated by other institutions to improve how science is taught in college,” said Sean B. Carroll, HHMI’s vice president of science education.

David J. Asai, the institute’s director of precollege and undergraduate science education programs, said, “We are excited by this group of grantees because, together, we expect them to provide leadership in solving some of the important issues confronting science in the nation.”

The College plans to found a summer research program for students after their first year, increase on-campus and off-campus research programs for upper-level students, and provide additional opportunities for students to cultivate their mentoring skills through involvement in community engagement and mentoring of elementary school students. A key feature will be expanded opportunities for students to work closely with alumni who are accomplished in their fields.

“These activities will increase research opportunities for students, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary projects,” said Wendy L. Hill, provost, dean of the faculty, and Rappolt Professor of Neuroscience, who played a key role in developing the project. “They will also improve students’ confidence in their research abilities, increasing the likelihood that they will pursue careers in the life sciences, and provide them with leadership skills that will benefit them in their future careers.”

In addition, through a new faculty and peer mentoring program, the College will support students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds (including first-generation, low-income, and racial/ethnic minority students), in persisting in undergraduate studies and research. Lafayette has found that participation in research correlates positively with persistence in science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines.

The initiatives integrate key components of Lafayette’s strategic plan for improving the environment for undergraduate education, including support for the life sciences and biology, development of a more robust institutional framework for interdisciplinary teaching and learning, increasing the faculty by 20 percent, and enhancing diversity and inclusiveness.

The funding starts in September and will run for four years. The project director is Robert A. Kurt. An associate professor in the Department of Biology, Kurt was named the inaugural Peter C.S. d’Aubermont, M.D. ’73 Director of the College’s interdisciplinary health and life sciences program last year. Chun Wai Liew, associate professor of computer science, is the project’s co-director, and Laurie Caslake, associate professor of biology, will serve as assessment coordinator.

Lafayette’s multidisciplinary approach to biology and the life sciences takes advantage of the College’s mix of bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degree programs, especially those in engineering and science. More than one-quarter of Lafayette’s faculty members (59 professors in 15 departments) engage in research related to the life sciences. Faculty members from several academic departments and interdisciplinary programs worked together to plan and design the Hughes-funded initiatives, including biology, chemical and biomolecular engineering, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, mechanical engineering, neuroscience, and philosophy.

In this highly competitive grant process, 182 proposals were submitted by 187 schools, and only 43 awards (less than 25 percent) were made. One of the nation’s largest philanthropies, HHMI, headquartered in Chevy Chase, Md., is a nonprofit medical research organization that plays a powerful role in advancing biomedical research and science education in the United States.

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