Richard M. Losick, who teaches the popular class Biological Sciences 52, “Introductory Molecular Biology,” was awarded yesterday a $1 million grant aimed at improving scientific education for undergraduates.
Losick, who is Cabot professor of biology, was one of 20 science professors nationwide to receive grants from the Maryland-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The prizes are the largest-ever endowed to individuals for scientific teaching, according to Steve Barkanic, the institute’s program director for undergraduate science education.
Losick said he was “very pleased” by the announcement of the award, which will be paid in four annual $250,000 installments. He said he has already begun one of three grant-funded projects to improve undergraduate science education at Harvard.
The first of his projects will place some of his undergraduate students in the laboratories of senior graduate students or post-doctoral fellows.
“I always have a handful of students who have a vast amount of laboratory research experience for whom the [BS 52] lab is not challenging enough,” Losick said.
He said he told students in his class who are interested in the advanced laboratory work to e-mail to him descriptions of their experience.
“I’ll take the half-dozen or so students with the strongest background,” Losick said.
He also said he intends to hire a professional animator—which he acknowledges could be a potentially costly undertaking—to work with undergraduates in designing and creating computer animations of scientific processes.
“I am quite enthusiastic about using animation as a pedagogical tool in biological science,” Losick said, citing chromosome replication as a biological process which might be better understood through his project.
“Molecular biology really lends itself to animation,” he said.
For his final endeavor, Losick said he will seek to foster the scientific interests of students from disadvantaged backgrounds by matching them with host laboratories. This would provide salaried summer jobs and potentially establish long-term relationships between researchers and students.
“The idea is to keep them in science and hopefully get them involved with it, as a career, perhaps,” he said. “I have the sense that we lose some students in the first year because of the large classes.”
BS 52 had 213 enrolled students last fall, according to the CUE Guide.
The Hughes Institute’s official online announcement of the grants described undergraduate teaching on college campuses as “undervalued”—part of the motivation for the grants.
“There’s been a lot of criticism of universities for undergraduate teaching,” Barkanic said. “Teaching is something that should happen along with research.”
Many have lauded the teaching of Losick, who has received a Harvard College professorship for his excellent instruction.
“I think that he’s an outstanding professor,” said Ernie Chang, a two-time discussion teaching fellow in BS 52. “He’s very good at describing concepts in molecular biology that could be very confusing.”
Steve R. Brauer ’04, a former BS 52 student, concurred.
“Professor Losick gave very clear explanations and interesting lectures,” he said.
“He’s been an integral person in designing the lab and ensuring that it meshes well with the rest of the course,” said Lauraine Dalton, the laboratory preceptor for the course.
Recipients of the teaching grants were chosen from among 150 candidates nominated by 84 universities, according to Barkanic.
“It was a very strenuous, rigorous selection,” he said. “We wanted to see that there had been some teaching experience. All of the candidates are strong researchers.”
Losick said he knows many of the other 19 grant recipients and he looks forward to collaborating with them as part of “a team effort.”
Barkanic said such collaboration “is really something we hoped to achieve” through symposia and annual meetings.
The Hughes Institute has awarded $500 million in grants in the past 14 years to improve science education, Barkanic said.
—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.