Howard Hughes Medical Institute program brings undergrads into the lab
By Dana Beasley ’14
Nearly 10 years ago, New Mexico State University competed against the most elite colleges in the country to gain support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a national leader in biological and medical research funding.
NMSU was selected and secured its spot as an HHMI research-intensive university, receiving more than $5 million in grants and reaching thousands of students through a variety of programs since 2006.
“Receiving this funding is recognition that we’re doing cutting-edge work in terms of promoting scientific literacy amongst our students, and providing access to science education for undergraduates,” says Ralph Preszler, program director for NMSU-HHMI and department head for biology in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Sharing a list with Ivy League schools like Yale and Harvard, NMSU is one of only 40 universities nationwide to have a current HHMI undergraduate education program. The university also set a precedent as one of the first large, state-funded institutions to gain HHMI affiliation.
Curriculum reform and BioCats
Through the years, NMSU-HHMI has supported significant outreach efforts, curriculum reforms and opportunities for undergraduates to play crucial roles in research programs.
The program’s innovative efforts can be seen early on in introductory biology courses, which feature a spin on the traditional large lecture format by supporting “flipped” classrooms that focus on groups of students evaluating and discussing the application of biology to case studies.
Additionally, instead of lecturing to 200 students three times a week, one lecture is replaced with a small, 20-student workshop taught by peer facilitators called BioCats, or Biology Learning Catalysts. The BioCats are upper-level undergraduate students who are also present during other lower-level biology courses to assist students when they break into small groups.
“The integration of student peer instructors into the introductory biology courses has had a transformative effect on the way we teach biology to incoming students,” says Brad Shuster, associate professor of biology and NMSU-HHMI faculty mentor.
This trend also fits well with an emerging emphasis at HHMI, which highlights a need to diversify the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, workforce at a national scale.
Research Scholars Program
Research by NMSU-HHMI scholars could ultimately have far-reaching impact as they work to discover scientific and medical breakthroughs with life-saving potential.
The research course prepares students to join the Research Scholars Program, which is designed for select juniors and seniors interested in gaining an in-depth understanding of the nature of research in the biological sciences.
The NMSU-HHMI program sponsors 10 to 25 students per year to work alongside faculty mentors from various NMSU labs across a number of departments, including biology; psychology; plant and environmental sciences; animal and range sciences; fish, wildlife and conservation ecology; entomology, plant pathology and weed science; and chemistry and biochemistry.
The program not only provides students in STEM fields an intensive laboratory research experience, but it also offers them opportunities to work independently and in groups to solve problems. This allows students to develop intellectually, while gaining analytical, organizational and communication skills.
“Students get introduced to the experience and culture of academic research,” says Graciela Unguez, professor of biology and NMSU-HHMI faculty mentor. “Through learning and applying the method and process of scientific research, students get a good foundation to make an informed decision about whether or not they would like to apply for a more in-depth research experience after they graduate.”
Today’s research scholars
Linday Selters, a biology major and one of 25 current NMSU-HHMI research scholars, spent the last academic year working with Unguez. Selters’ research focus is the Sternopygus macrurus, an electric fish native to South America.
In her project, Selters examines what happens when the fish’s electric organ is no longer electrically activated or receiving information from the brain. This data will provide new information on the effect of electrical activity on certain proteins and cells in not only fish, but also mammals.
“I have learned more about working in a laboratory than I could ever hope to learn sitting down at a desk for semesters on end, or reading numerous textbooks,” Selters says. “I learn by doing, and HHMI is the reason that I am beginning to feel confident that research is what I want to do with my life.”
Fellow research scholar and biology major Josh Marquez works in the laboratory of comparative immunology under Maria G. Castillo, an NMSU assistant professor of biology. Marquez credits this opportunity with providing him the resources to meet his future ambitions of becoming a doctor.
“I will be applying to M.D.-Ph.D. dual degree programs this coming year,” he says. “The HHMI program has led me to develop skills in research, which I will utilize in the future as a doctor and scientist.”
The places they’ll go
Since 2006, the research scholars program has produced roughly 120 graduates, with the vast majority now engaged in STEM-related jobs, graduate school, or medical, dental and veterinary schools.
Angelina Bortoletto, a 2013 NMSU-HHMI alumna, is currently in her second term of medical school at Baylor College of Medicine.
“The HHMI program introduced me to my college mentor, Dr. Shelley Lusetti,” Bortoletto says. “For the three years that I worked with her, she truly encouraged me to explore research as a career option and is one of the major reasons that I find myself at one of the top M.D.-Ph.D. programs in the country.”
Also finding great success following her stint as a research scholar is Kellie Jurado, a 2010 NMSU-HHMI alumna, who defended her doctoral thesis at Harvard University last summer and recently began a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale.
“I am very excited to continue my journey within academic science and credit the mentors and research experiences I had during my undergrad work as instrumental in setting my path within this career,” she says.
The more than 50 past and current NMSU-HHMI faculty mentors seem to be equally pleased with the experience.
“What I love most about my job is working in the lab doing research,” Unguez says. “Sharing this experience with students can be so gratifying, because I get to share my enthusiasm for science and knowledge of its process in a very hands-on environment – one I prefer more than the lecture room. That’s why having the NMSU-HHMI Research Scholars Program is so exciting.”
While the mentors work to propel some of the school’s most dedicated young scientists toward their goals, student involvement is also helping to advance the efforts of NMSU labs; research scholars often contribute to published studies and provide data that lead to federally funded grants.
“We appreciate that they are willing to bring undergraduates into their labs and get them fully engaged in doing research,” Preszler says. “I think our faculty does an incredible job mentoring undergraduates in their research laboratories – it’s a much more time-consuming way to do research than using technicians, but it’s also much more exciting and much more fun.”
The big picture
hough student researchers form the backbone of NMSU-HHMI’s success, the program provides opportunities for dedicated students regardless of their long-term career goals.
“Many federally funded training programs at NMSU have a specific mandate to transition undergrads to graduate school,” Shuster says. “The HHMI program hopes that participants will go off and do something excellent, whether that’s graduate school, medical school or education.”
NMSU-HHMI Guided Research Course
•$200,000: HHMI-funded remodel of NMSU teaching lab
•Designed for 24 sophomore-level students
•Exposes students to authentic research within a classroom setting
•Varying biological subjects, depending on rotating professor’s research focus
•Prepares students for the Research Scholars Program