Vol. 18, No. 3Sept. 17, 1998

$1.6M award supports undergrad researchers

At 21, Brooke Heidenfelder of Doylestown, Pa., is still an undergraduate at UD, but she has pursued graduate-level research for the past four summers.

Supervised by faculty member Don Dennis, chemistry and biochemistry, she's investigating an enzyme from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that triggers key replication reactions.

Last year, Heidenfelder's research, sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) of Silver Springs, Md., earned a first-place prize in a competition organized by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. "I like immunology," she said, when asked about her career goals. "I'm thinking I may go into that field."

Another HHMI undergraduate researcher at UD, Amanda Simons of Mount Laurel, N.J., recently coauthored a scholarly journal article describing a yeast protein that may indirectly promote the recombination of genetic material. Studies of recombination mechanisms may ultimately shed light on a variety of genetic diseases, explained Simons, 21, who works in the laboratory of Junghuei Chen, chemistry and biochemistry.

Heidenfelder and Simons are among many UD undergraduates discovering the rewards of scientific investigation through special projects, and through active learning exercises-thanks to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

On Sept. 16, HHMI named Delaware to receive a $1.6 million, four-year grant for new programs to complement existing, successful problem-based learning (PBL) initiatives, which turn undergraduate students into detectives, by prompting them to investigate real-world problems. Delaware was one of 58 research universities to receive a total of $91.1 million in HHMI grants designed to strengthen undergraduate education programs in the biological sciences.

To win the HHMI award, Delaware submitted one of 191 proposals reviewed by a panel of distinguished scientists and educators working with the prestigious medical research organization.

Active learning

On a blackboard in Brown Laboratory, Harold B. White III, chemistry and biochemistry, program director for the new HHMI grant, has written a Chinese proverb:

"I hear, and I will forget. I see, and I may remember. I do, and I will understand."

The words are a reminder, he said, that learning takes place faster and more effectively "when lessons are delivered in story form, and students participate in an active way."

Student Dennis Yoon of Park Ridge, N.J., agreed. Confronted with a photosynthesis problem-the process by which green plants transform carbon dioxide into biomolecules in the presence of sunlight-Yoon shakes his head. He learned about photosynthesis a couple of years ago, he said, by listening to traditional lectures. "I remember memorizing the entire process, step by step," he said. "Now, I don't remember any of it."

In contrast, Yoon and other students in White's biochemistry classes retain much of what they learn by investigating real problems presented in a story-like format. To prove this point, White surprised his students last week with an impromptu pop quiz, questioning them about a story he told in a previous PBL lesson.

"How old was Albert Szent-Gyorgyi when he died?" White asked.

"Was he 93?" a student responded immediately.

White nodded, smiling. "Why did he win the Nobel Prize?"

"Vitamin C," someone else answered, correctly.

"Where and when did I meet him?" White queried.

"Uh, somewhere in Massachusetts."

White said that he did, indeed, meet the Nobel Prize winner at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, located in Massachusetts.

His quiz continued, including questions about how many times Szent-Gyorgi married (four) and the age of his last wife when he married her (19). His students can't be stumped. "While this was just a trivia quiz," White noted, "it shows how well information can be retained when it's presented in an understandable context."

Such anecdotal evidence suggests that active learning techniques built around stories help students learn more effectively and retain information longer. White and other PBL pioneers at UD also point to pre- and post-class surveys, which provide more concrete evidence that the method works. White, who earned his Ph.D. at Brandeis University and served as a research fellow in Harvard's Department of Chemistry before joining the UD faculty in 1971, said students faced with real questions learn to think critically and work in teams.

They also learn to identify the limits of their existing knowledge, and they gain critical investigative skills. Yoon, Heidenfelder and other students, for example, quickly concluded they should hit the library to determine "whether all the carbon atoms in clothing are ultimately derived from photosynthesis."

And, White said, "That's the whole point. They need to take the initiative to solve the problem independently. They won't be able to hold jobs or succeed in graduate school if they don't know how to find answers."

Award at work

Over the next four years, the $1.6 million HHMI grant will support: (1) interdisciplinary research projects by undergraduates, including minority students; (2) outreach efforts to promote biological sciences at the high-school level; (3) faculty development and implementation of active learning methods; and (4) new equipment.

The HHMI award also will help UD expand its existing NUCLEUS program (Network for Undergraduate Collaborative Learning Experiences for Underrepresented Scholars), reported Usher.

Established in 1993, the NUCLEUS program has served 59 students to date. Enrollment has increased from 26 to 129, and nearly half the group has gone on to pursue an advanced degree. The NUCLEUS program helps support outstanding students like Marijka Grey, a 23-year-old senior, originally from St. Kitts, Virgin Islands, who will attend medical school after graduating from UD next year. Now majoring in both English and biological sciences, Grey said underrepresented minorities "need a support group, so they can see students like themselves who are working and thriving."

For information, check out White's home page at <http://www. udel.edu/chem/white/> and the HHMI web site at <www.hhmi. org/undergrad98>.

-Ginger Pinholster