College science department awarded grant

By Andrew Stettler
January 29, 2009

Cabrini College

Cabrini College recently became one of 12 colleges awarded the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Initiative. The grant will give almost $1 million per year and allow the science department to begin a new research-based curriculum aimed toward incoming freshmen students, both science and non-science majors.

Incoming students will be given the opportunity to study phages, extract real DNA and perform their own experiments that do not come from kits where the outcome is always already known.

“What we learn from bacteriophages might be able to give us better tools to prevent many microbial diseases,” Dr. David Dunbar, associate professor of biology, said.

Dunbar and another recipient of the award, Dr. Melinda Harrison, an assistant professor of chemistry, will be traveling to Washington D.C. this week to be trained on how to teach this innovative, lab-based, research curriculum.

“What is really great about it is that it is original work and students are going to get hands-on experience working in a lab setting,” Harrison said.

“We’re hoping that this will be the wave of the future as far as education goes for science because a lot of people learn more, in the sciences, by doing rather than just having information thrown to them over a PowerPoint or a projection screen.”

HHMI, as Dunbar and Harrison refer to it, was created by Howard Hughes Jr. Hughes was not only an American aviator and philanthropist but also a film producer, making films like “Scarface” and “Hells Angles.”

In 1953, Hughes created HHMI in order to understand the “genesis of life itself.” Today HHMI invests about $1 million in each of their “investigators,” each year, amounting to more than $450 million a year.

For Cabrini, the initiative plans are not only to pay each student’s lab fee, but also to train college faculty members like Dunbar and Harrison so that students can work in the correct HHMI environment.

A key aspect of the initiative is that students will gain hands-on lab experience and eventually be able to work alongside faculty members on their research interests.

Students therefore will gain more experience than the traditional student would without the initiatives help.

“A lot of time students in the sciences do not get to do original research until they are juniors or seniors,” Harrison said. “I learn the most from making mistakes earlier on.”

The initiative will give Cabrini students a head start on experience in the lab so that they can learn from their research mistakes during their college education instead of learning while working in a lab.

“What we want students to see is that science can be exciting,especially if they do make some good discoveries and get some good data because it will be exciting for students to be recognized by a national institution,” Harrison said.

Andrew Stettler

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