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John Harvard's Journal

“The Excitement of Science”

July-August 2006

In the fall of 2003, Juliet Girard ’07 arrived at Harvard with first-rate scientific ambitions and a second-rate education. She had grown up in Jersey City and taken classes at a large public high school—it was “pretty bad,” she says—before making the geographic and intellectual leap to Cambridge. The transition was difficult, but not because she couldn’t manage the coursework. “I really had a hard time,” Girard explains. “I didn’t know people who came from similar economic backgrounds.” The concern wasn’t purely social: like many students on financial aid, she had strict term-time and summer earning requirements. Girard was afraid she wouldn’t find enough earning opportunities to carry her through all four years.

One thing she did have, though, was a strong interest in the life sciences. Girard had spent a summer during high school working at a plant-breeding laboratory at Cornell, where she acquired a taste for the rhythms and methods of research. She thought she’d like to sustain this experience through college. Shortly after she arrived in Cambridge, Cabot professor of biology Richard M. Losick invited her to apply to a research-education program he had recently developed to support disadvantaged students interested in science. A few months later, Girard was working as a researcher in one of the University’s most illustrious cellular-biology laboratories. She has not worried about meeting her financial-aid earnings requirements since then.

Robert M. Losick
Photograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office

Girard is one of about two dozen students in a program Losick developed in 2002 with a million-dollar grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). His goal is to place passionate but disadvantaged young life scientists in top labs where they can perform actual research (instead of cleaning beakers). He also provides enough financial support that they don’t have to hold other jobs. Losick sees the program as preventive: he is afraid of letting a brilliant scientific mind fall through the cracks because of a less-than-privileged background. “Arguably, no one who is admitted to Harvard is disadvantaged,” he explains. Still, not all advantages are created equal. Those whom he selects often come from inner-city schools with limited resources or from less affluent countries. According to Losick, many of them might otherwise be deterred from pursuing a science degree. “In my experience, these students are at the highest risk,” he says. “They find themselves falling behind and don’t have a good feel for the excitement of science.”

Losick is something of a romantic about “the excitement of science,” and, like many romantics, he is wary of institutionalization. His program for disadvantaged students (which HHMI will continue funding for the next four years with a $500,000 renewal grant) was the centerpiece of a three-pronged effort to get back what’s often lost in the lecture hall: he is trying to bring a seasoned researcher’s excitement to greenhorn undergraduates. Faculty members, who regularly move among Harvard’s classrooms, laboratories, and offices, know that different work goes on in each of these places, but the difference is not always so apparent to undergraduates. “Being a scientist and doing science is very different from being a student and doing coursework,” Losick explains. “I think they sometimes confuse taking exams and going to lecture and doing courses with science.” The way around this misconception, he maintains, is to show students what’s going on at the research vanguard.

With this in mind, Losick, who in 2002 was named a Harvard College Professor for excellence in teaching, has helped develop a new undergraduate research course and incorporate nontraditional teaching tools, like animations and instant-feedback technology, into his own lecture classes. Meanwhile, the recent announcement of a new, integrated undergraduate curriculum in the life sciences—much of which bears Losick’s imprimatur —has turned the approach of his four-year project into a cornerstone of Harvard’s latest science instruction.

 

At Harvard, laboratory research is traditionally the endpoint of training, not its origin. Losick doesn’t think it should be so. His premise is that the demands of actual research—designing experiments, analyzing data, and recalibrating hypotheses—can be teaching tools at all levels. Pedagogically speaking, he’s playing with an old deck, but he’s shuffled the cards into a new sequence. This makes for a very different game.

For one thing, Losick, who is co-head tutor in biochemical sciences, has tried to front-load the undergraduate curriculum as much as possible. Rather than save the most exciting material for higher-level classes, as a reward for students who persevere, he and many of his colleagues try to integrate it into introductory courses to entice students to explore further. Losick’s own Biological Sciences 52, “Introductory Molecular Biology,” puts a premium on interaction and engagement. He’s used part of his HHMI grant to hire a graphic artist, Matt Bohan, to make dynamic computer animations of molecular processes. These are ideally suited for teaching molecular biology, he says, because they let him show how several distinct processes—like the unzipping of a DNA strand and the pairing of its bases—work together. “If you’re trying to teach something that is dynamic on a blackboard, it’s hard to do,” he explains. “With an animation, I can show things in motion, and also I can layer.”

He also tries to keep tabs on students’ progress during the lectures themselves. By distributing “personal response devices,” invented by McKay professor of applied physics and of physics Eric Mazur (“Outside of Harvard, it’s frequently called a clicker,” Losick deadpans), he can instantly monitor how the class responds to a given problem. “If I haven’t done a good job,” he says, “I can re-explain the material.” The goal is to move away from a muddled textbook-level understanding of biological processes and toward the dynamic understanding of a scientific professional.

In some cases, this effort has impelled Losick to move past the classroom entirely. When a few students, like Jillian Spangler ’06, entered BS 52 with previous laboratory experience, Losick allowed them to skip the weekly course lab sections and do research, in his own laboratory, that generated new and valuable data. They were doing science, rather than simply learning it—all while getting to see what their professor did outside the lecture hall. “It gave me a very good chance to get to know him,” says Spangler, who plans to begin doctoral work in organic chemistry this fall at Princeton. “We became very good friends.”

She also took advantage of other research opportunities that Losick has helped to organize within the curriculum. Spangler enrolled for the inaugural semester of Molecular and Cellular Biology 100, a course Losick designed with Robert Lue, who is executive director of undergraduate education in molecular and cellular biology. MCB 100 is a course based entirely on research: students pick a topic that interests them and pursue it, in groups, as part of a larger faculty project. It’s an opportunity many might not otherwise see until graduate school. Unlike a graduate research track, though, MCB 100 offers an overview of several different projects; each group shares its progress with the class as a whole. Students make their own schedules and conduct most of their work in Harvard’s teaching laborator- ies, newly renovated and equipped with a combination of University and HHMI funds. The students learn, in effect, how to teach themselves science.

 

Losick’s program for disadvantaged students rests at the point where this new pedagogy meets the world outside Harvard’s gates. He actively recruits freshmen every fall, drawing a list of possible candidates from the College admissions office and identifying students who are interested in science but have performed poorly on their placement exams. He advertises the program among Yard proctors and first-year advisers. In choosing among applicants, Losick favors enthusiasm over achievement. “I assume that any student admitted to Harvard is smart,” he says. “I want to find who’s motivated.”

James Sawalla Guseh II ’06 heard about Losick’s program from his freshman proctor. He had done laboratory work at Duke and Chapel Hill in high school, and, on arriving at Harvard, mentioned that he might be interested in stem-cell work. Losick placed him in the lab of Cabot professor of the natural sciences Douglas A. Melton, a leading stem-cell researcher and co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, where he remained through graduation. Guseh’s research in Melton’s lab culminated in a biochemical sciences thesis investigating the formation of the lung through three sets of experiments. It recently won a Hoopes prize. Next year, Guseh plans to apply to graduate schools and to prepare some of his findings for publication. If it hadn’t been for Losick’s program, he says, he might have concentrated in government and gone to law school. “I’ve always had an interest in doing research that perhaps the program just nurtured,” he explains. Because he earned part-time wages during the school year and full-time wages over the summer, he never needed to find a supplementary job.

Part of the reason the program works, Losick says, is that college students are a welcome presence in most faculty laboratories. “Professors already have postdocs who are experienced,” he explains. “They want to take undergraduates in the lab because they’re smart and enthusiastic.” He says he relishes his role as a “matchmaker” between students and colleagues, because what he’s ultimately trying to build is a new sort of scientific community. For Juliet Girard—who has been working in the lab of MCB chair Andrew W. Murray, researching how microtubule tension is sensed during cell division—the program has offered a group of friends as well as financial support. “There’s a strong sense of camaraderie,” she says. “It’s really felt like a community for me.”

 

It’s a good time to be thinking about life-science education. A proposal enacted this spring divides the undergraduate concentrations of biology and biochemical sciences into five new specializations; these will join with three existing tracks to create an eight-part life-sciences cluster (see "Reconfiguring the Curriculum"). The new organization is intended to provide students with greater flexibility and closer contact with faculty advisers. It is not so surprising, then, that Losick’s projects have helped set the tone for change.

Robert Lue describes Losick as “absolutely crucial” to the planning of the new concentration cluster—even though it will dissolve the concentration he directs. “Other faculty were surprised by how open and not turf-oriented Rich was and is,” Lue says. “Biochemical sciences is a jewel.” Yet Losick’s support makes sense. The new curriculum is based on a pair of common courses, Life Sciences 1a and 1b, that premiered this past year—Lue co-taught the former in the fall—and reflect the front-loaded, interactive approach Losick and Lue have been perfecting for years (see “Enlivening Science,” July-August 2005, page 62). “Rich and I were very concerned about making the freshman experience both much more exciting for students and much more reflective of what is exciting in science today,” Lue says. “You get them as first-semester freshmen and they develop an expectation for what a lecture course could be.”

Life Sciences 1a, which Lue says was developed in consultation with Losick and other experienced teachers on campus, offers an integrated introduction to biology and chemistry through “framing questions” based in recent, rather than canonic, discovery. (The course taught concepts in chemistry and biology, for instance, by examining how cancer and the HIV virus work.) Not only was enrollment 30 percent higher than its predecessor’s, but attendance hovered at 80 percent through the semester—even though class was held at the student-unfriendly hour of 9:30 a.m. and lecture videos were available on-line. “I’ve taught at Harvard for almost 20 years,” Lue says, “and I’ve never seen such energy.”

Losick says he expects the new life-sciences courses to have a “ripple effect” through the redesigned sciences, forcing higher-level courses to be reshaped in a similar vein. The prospect excites him. He also thinks the new concentration structures might open up space for more research earlier in the curriculum. “There’s more talk of having more MCB-100-like courses in other fields,” he reports.

Funding for Losick’s disadvantaged-students program is uncertain—he hopes a benefactor will step in before 2010, when his renewal grant expires—but, for the moment, he likes meeting a new group of budding scientists every year and watching them pass on their experiences as they grow. “The idea is that the upper-level students would be mentors and role models for the lower-level students,” he says. Whether this ideal holds up in practice, of course, is something that only time—and trial—will tell.