UCLA has been awarded a five-year $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) as part of its Inclusive Excellence initiative. The effort aims to help colleges and universities encourage participation and cultivate the talent of students in the natural sciences, especially underrepresented ethnic minorities, first-generation college students and working adults with families.

More than 500 colleges and universities applied for the Inclusive Excellence 2017 awards, and 24 were selected.

UCLA will use the funding to reinvigorate undergraduate education, especially for transfer students, so that larger numbers of undergraduates receive an “authentic research experience” in which their education is collaborative, interactive and evidence-based, with a focus on problem-solving, said Tracy Johnson, a professor who holds the Maria Rowena Ross Chair of Cell Biology and Biochemistry, is an HHMI Professor and is director of the new program.

“We are revitalizing the life sciences curriculum and enabling more undergraduates to be motivated and engaged in science while working side-by-side with faculty and graduate students,” Johnson said. “Hands-on research experience for undergraduates in the sciences is crucial, and we are developing new ways to make sure the best and brightest students — and UCLA has many of the best undergraduates in the country — receive the world-class education they deserve.”

Johnson already teaches a collaborative undergraduate research laboratory in which two dozen students conduct genetics research, identifying proteins and analyzing genomic data, and write research grant proposals. With the HHMI grant, she wants UCLA to offer more research-based courses that enable students to learn science by doing science.

UCLA will also use funding from the grant to expand workshops in which faculty in the life sciences and physical sciences learn highly effective, interactive teaching practices that will help to retain more students in the sciences. Undergraduates who engage in research stay in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields at a higher rate than students who do not. Transfer students have participated in research at a substantially lower rate than other undergraduates, Johnson said. Ensuring the success of transfer students in STEM fields is a major goal of UCLA’s HHMI-funded program.

Johnson is especially excited to work with the other colleges and universities that are receiving the HHMI grants to “build on one another’s successes and serve as a model for other colleges and universities,” she said.

“The challenges this program addresses are important for all of us who care deeply about developing a more inclusive and diverse scientific community,” said HHMI President Erin O’Shea.

“In the United States, a person’s success in science has too often been more a reflection of where she came from rather than where she wants to go,” said David Asai, senior director for science education at HHMI. Students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups leave STEM at significantly greater rates than whites and Asians — even when they come to college with similar preparation, he noted. Finding a way to include all students from all backgrounds in STEM is critical for building future generations of American scientists, he said.

“Science excellence depends on having a community of scientists that is rich in diversity of people and perspectives,” Asai said. “We want to change the way schools do business.” 

Johnson praised the innovative educators working with her, including Erin Sanders, director of UCLA’s Center for Education Innovation in the Sciences; Ira Clark, a life sciences academic administrator and associate director of the biomedical research minor, and Marc Levis-Fitzgerald, director of educational assessment in UCLA’s Office of Instructional Development.

In UCLA’s efforts to enhance the undergraduate experience, Johnson and her colleagues will draw on lessons learned from a number of successful programs at UCLA, such as the Biomedical Research Minor, initiated by UCLA HHMI Professor Utpal Banerjee, and UCLA’s Bruins In Genomics Summer Undergraduate Research Program. Outstanding undergraduates from across the country participating in this program spend eight weeks at UCLA conducting research and learning the latest data analysis techniques and skills that are transforming the biosciences. A new group of 40 undergraduates will start this program on June 26.

HHMI is the largest private, nonprofit supporter of science education in the United States.