Academics & Faculty

Two UCLA Science Professors Awarded $1 Million Grants From Howard Hughes Medical Institute to Support Creative Approaches to Undergraduate Education


Two UCLA professors are among 20 professors nationally to beawarded $1 million grants by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) tocreatively improve undergraduate science teaching.

UCLA's new "HHMI Professors" are Utpal Banerjee and RobertB. Goldberg, both professors in the Department of Molecular, Cell andDevelopmental Biology.

UCLA is the only university in the United States to havemore than one professor selected for this honor.

HHMI challenged professors to "show the same ingenuity inundergraduate teaching" as they do in scientific research, and this weekannounced those who met their challenge.

Goldberg will create a novel program to teach undergraduatesabout the "excitement of discovery," the process by which science is conducted,and how advances in biology are rapidly transforming our lives.

"One of my goals," Goldberg said, "is to show undergraduateshow research is carried out, how scientists are just like 'the rest of us,' howmuch effort, imagination and creativity go into experimental thought, and howmuch fun science is."

Goldberg will combine an interactive course, "GeneticEngineering in Medicine, Agriculture and Law," with a cutting-edge laboratoryexperience that will use state-of-the-science genomic technologies to uncover significantgenes. The course will teach students how to think critically aboutexperimental science and societal issues raised by emerging new genetictechnologies.

"Students will emerge from the course with a conceptualbackground in what genes are, how they work, how genes are manipulated, and howadvances in gene technology are transforming society," said Goldberg, who isalso co-director of the Seed Institute.

Undergraduates in his course will be organized into teamsthat will carry out original research concerning which genes control theearliest stages of seed development.

"I anticipate that many new clues will be uncovered aboutthe genes and processes that regulate seed development," Goldberg said, "andthat undergraduates will present their results at conferences and contribute tooriginal publications. I will share with these students the excitement I havefor the process of discovery, and make 'science come alive.'"

Banerjee, who chairs UCLA's Department of Molecular, Celland Developmental Biology, will create a "fundamentally different researchenvironment for a significant number of undergraduates at UCLA," he said. As anHHMI Professor, he will bring undergraduates to work in large laboratorycourses in close cooperation with his lab, where his team studies the nature ofcell-cell communication in Drosophila,the fruit fly. The Drosophila eye isa "premier genetic system for studying many cellular and developmentalprocesses," said Banerjee, who added that a database of eye mutations would bean "extremely valuable resource."

"How does one cell talk to another, and how does it lead acell to take on a certain fate?" Banerjee asks. "How does it know what it is tobecome? Cells must have some way of deciding who is going to do what. In orderfor them to take on a specific fate, they must rely on signals they get fromtheir neighbors. Those signals have a molecular basis."

All of the fruit fly's genes are known, and its two-weekreproduction cycle makes it easy to produce large numbers of flies veryquickly. However, not all of its gene functions are known.

Banerjee's undergraduate students will create mutant flies,removing one gene at a time in the developing eye or the blood. They will dothis for a large number of genes. Students will learn the functions of genesand how different gene functions relate to one another. Each student will mapmutations and will learn molecular mapping techniques.

"UCLA undergraduates will produce publishable results withimplications for human gene function and disorder," he said. "At the end offour years, a near saturation map of mutations will be created on the Drosophila chromosome."

Most of the students in Banerjee's project will participatefor multiple quarters.

"I'd like to see a system where undergraduates start doingresearch in science very early in their careers," Banerjee said.

Fred Eiserling — UCLA dean of life sciences, professor ofmicrobiology and molecular genetics, and director of UCLA's UndergraduateBiological Sciences Education Program — said he is "delighted" that UCLA wontwo of these HHMI teaching awards, and praised the "exceptional" teachingskills of professors Goldberg and Banerjee.

HHMI invited 84 research universities to nominate facultymembers. A panel of scientists and educators reviewed 150 proposals andselected 20 HHMI Professors at 19 universities in 13 states.

"Research is advancing at a breathtaking pace, but manyuniversity students are still learning science the same old way, by listeningto lectures, memorizing facts and doing cookbook lab experiments that thousandshave done before," said HHMI President Thomas R. Cech, a biochemist whocontinued teaching undergraduates at the University of Colorado at Boulderafter he won a Nobel Prize. "We want to empower scientists at researchuniversities to become more involved in breaking the mold and bringing theexcitement of research to science education."

HHMI is a private philanthropy dedicated to biomedicalresearch and science education. The institute employs 324 investigators whoconduct basic medical research in HHMI laboratories at 69 of the nation'sleading research centers and universities. Through its complementary grantsprogram, HHMI supports science education in the United States and a selectgroup of researchers abroad.

Online Resources:

       See the newsrelease and related links from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at:

       Robert B.

       Utpal Banerjee:



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