Zaman One of Two Faculty Named BU’s First Howard Hughes Professors


Million-dollar grants integrate research with undergrad education

By Rich Barlow, BU Today

Associate Professor Muhammad Zaman (BME, MSE) will teach students about challenges to global health as a Howard Hughes Professor. (Photo by Cydney Scott)
Associate Professor Muhammad Zaman (BME, MSE) will teach students about challenges to global health as a Howard Hughes Professor. (Photo by Cydney Scott)

Two professional concerns keep David Marchant up at night. One is a possible million-person shortfall in American STEM scientists (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in the coming decade. The other is inadequate science literacy and support among the public.

To stem the STEM decline, Marchant, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth & environment, plans to show some first-year students what it means to be really, really cold.

Taking 15 to 20 first-years from three BU schools—CAS, the College of Communication, and the School of Education—Marchant will turn them loose for a year and a half of research in the CAS Experimental Permafrost Laboratory, which replicates Antarctic temperatures. The students will study geological phenomena and climate change and also will develop media about their work, which may include blogs, documentaries, or popular articles—“products that are both interesting and understandable to the general public,” says Marchant. They’ll also team with local middle school teachers to make lesson plans of their research results for area schools.

As a culminating payoff, the BU students will participate in Marchant’s National Science Foundation–supported Antarctic fieldwork—possibly on site, otherwise through virtual work in a digital image lab—and attend seminars with renowned scientists, which could lead to the students’ getting summer internships with the scientists.

If forging future scientists and teaching them to teach nonscientists sounds ambitious, Marchant now has the resources to realize his project. He and Muhammad Zaman, a College of Engineering associate professor of biomedical engineering (and materials science and engineering), are BU’s first-ever recipients of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professorships, awarded to researchers with innovative techniques for undergraduate science education. A professorship confers a five-year, $1 million grant. The announcement was made yesterday by the HHMI.

“This is exciting for us and for the BU community as a whole,” says Marchant. “The funds will allow me to pursue STEM education in a deep and rigorous way and combine research in global change with STEM education. I am truly honored to receive this award.”

Zaman will use his professorship to design ways of incorporating global health issues, including, he says, “engineering challenges for resource-limited settings,” into the curriculum. “The goal is to provide students with the context and appreciation of global health challenges, while focusing on rigor and intellectual depth.”

He and his students have worked on various technologies to improve developing world medical care, including a detector for counterfeit and defective drugs flooding poorer countries.

The Maryland-based HHMI promotes biomedical research and science education. Besides awarding professorships, it also names HHMI investigators, an honor awarded in 2008 to ENG’s James Collins, (a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor). In awarding its 2014 professorships, the HHMI whittled down a field of 173 applicants to 15.

“HHMI is committed to the highest level of scholarship and innovation, and this is a great honor for me,” Zaman says, as well as for his department, ENG, and BU.

Marchant believes that in the espoused hat trick of a university researcher—research, teaching, and public outreach—too often the latter two are shortchanged. “Research, education, and outreach are rarely taught in an integrated fashion” to college undergraduates, he says. “Why create artificial distinctions, and why delay training in the methods of outreach and teaching?”