HHMI Undergraduate Research Program

Program Overview

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Undergraduate Research Program has created a set of coordinated strategies and activities that align directly with the overall objectives of both Morehouse College and HHMI. Morehouse College has an ongoing mission to develop disciplined men who may one day lead lives of leadership and service. At the core of this mission is a focus on the disparities in the number of minority STEM graduates. As a leader in the education of African American men in science and mathematics, Morehouse College is well positioned to meet this objective. The goals of this objective are to: 1) increase educational opportunities for academically talented students through active research opportunities with Morehouse faculty and other researchers; 2) expose students to interdisciplinary coursework; 3) prepare students for careers in STEM fields; and 4) disseminate successful scientific educational tools and information. To this end the HHMI program has successfully implemented these goals and objectives. Morehouse College received its first HHMI grant in 1988. Currently, we are in our fourth permutation of HHMI support.

The task of increasing the number of underrepresented STEM graduates is being approached at the core. This is accomplished by not only engaging students in research, but also by exposing them to research-based classes and mentors. This allows the program to broaden the scope of career options for our HHMI scholars.

Of particular significance to our current foundational premise was the establishment of the HHMI Core Laboratory Facility (2008–2012). This facility has principally coordinated broad-based activities in neuroscience, bioinformatics, biofuels, and greenhouse-based environmental/botanical activities. In addition this program is focused on curriculum as well as faculty development. Relative to the curriculum, student-based research activities in conjunction with faculty mentorship are utilized for the development of laboratory-based modules for introductory-based STEM courses. Concerning faculty development, this program supports travel (e.g., meetings, conferences) and pedagogical/research-based workshops.

Cross-Cutting Themes

Increasing Persistence of All Students in STEM

The HHMI Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education Initiative, which began in 1987, had a mission to recruit talented women and underrepresented minority students into the sciences. The initiative was launched in response to the results of a ten-year study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment during the period 1977–87. Morehouse College received its first award in 1988. Since the implementation of the program, the college has seen an increase in the number of minority male graduates interested in pursuing PhDs, as well as the amount of undergraduate research exposure and an overall enlightenment in all areas of STEM research.

Developing Inquiry Skills

This iteration of the Howard Hughes grant develops a model in which Morehouse students from a variety of majors come together and use their diverse skills to solve a scientific problem. The students spend the semester before their summer research experience in an Interdisciplinary Research Collaborations Course. This course serves two purposes: to provide an integrative assessment of a current scientific issue, and to prepare the students for their upcoming on-campus summer research program. The most recent course examined obesity and epigenetics and focused on the biology, chemistry, psychology, and sociology of the growing US epidemic. The HHMI scholars are required to work together to use the skills developed in their major to assess and address that issue. This class is designed similar to a graduate-level course, with a heavy emphasis on manuscript analysis, meeting leaders in the field, and hands-on experience. Students ultimately write a research proposal based on the topic.

The second part of the course is to directly prepare the scholars for their upcoming summer research project. Because all research takes at Morehouse College, they have access to the labs, mentors, and projects before the start of the summer. They can therefore learn techniques, do background reading, and begin preparing their presentations in advance of the summer experience. This also gives the cohort the opportunity to know about each other's projects and to consider ways in which they can collaborate and utilize each other's skills to develop their project.

The scholars are then able to maximize their time doing active research during the summer. The summer experience is an eight-week on-campus program in which research is the sole focus. The students meet weekly and give individual presentations of their research to their cohort, and receive feedback from each other, faculty, and HHMI staff. The summer culminates in a final research presentation.

Fostering Interdisciplinary or Integrative Learning

The HHMI grant has allowed for the development of the first shared research space at Morehouse College. This core was created with input from all research-active faculty, and allows for them to develop new research areas and uses. The core lab director maintains the equipment, trains students and faculty on their uses, and brings in experts in the field to drive use of the facility. The equipment and training of the core has been used by every research active laboratory on campus, and has made its way into several classroom laboratories.

The courses developed with HHMI funding were designed to increase student engagement in research. We learned that students were unable to enroll in several of the offered courses because their academic schedule was too constrained. An analysis of department majors showed that many students only had three hours of free electives available to them over their entire college career. As a result of this analysis, the entire biology curriculum was revised to allow for more student enrollment flexibility. The new schedule eliminates most required biology courses, converting them all to free electives, and allows students to get departmental credit for research or for related classes taken outside the department. This allows the student to craft an interdisciplinary major and explore his own areas of interest.

Pathways to Institutional Change

Morehouse College realized that there was limited flexibility for students to explore their scientific interests outside of their department. The college dramatically changed the curriculum requirements in several departments to allow students to explore their scientific interest of their specific majors.

Funding Acknowledgment

The work described here has been supported by funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.