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BU Receives $1.5M for Undergrad Neuroscience Research

May 21, 2010

Boston University today was awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to accelerate research for undergraduate neuroscience students.  The country’s largest private funder of science education awarded $70 million to 50 research institutions nationwide under its Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program.

Neuroscience at BU is booming.  Introduced as an undergraduate major just a year and a half ago, it will be the second most popular science major in the College of Arts and Sciences by this fall.  Still, only 4 of the 17 neuroscience majors graduating this year conducted enough original research to complete a senior honors thesis.

"We need to get a larger percentage of our students into laboratories," says Research Assistant Professor Paul Lipton, who will lead the new HHMI-funded program designed to do just that.

The central goal of the program, which is part of a broader science education initiative funded by an HHMI grant, is to bring students in the lab earlier in their undergraduate years. Most science majors at BU and elsewhere don't undertake research until they are juniors and seniors, says Lipton, academic director of BU's undergraduate program in neuroscience.  That's not early enough if research experiences are meant to have a lasting impact on the students' career paths, he says.

The new program will revamp the lecture-based introductory neuroscience course into a hands-on, research-based experience.  Rather than repeating cookbook lab exercises, students will work together in small teams to tackle real research problems under the guidance of faculty who are active researchers and respected teachers.  

Some students, for example, will explore the molecular and cellular mechanisms of memory formation.  Others will devise experiments to image brain activity in people, or be trained to implant tiny electrodes in the brains of rodents to study how neurons communicate with one another.  As they experience scientific discovery firsthand, the students will gain practical research skills through BU's electron microscopy facility and magnetic resonance imaging center.

Lipton's hope is that giving first-year students a kickstart in research will allow them to fully engage in the lab over the course of two or three years, rather than one or two semesters.  The culmination of the experience, he says, will be a senior thesis that the students will be encouraged to submit for publication to a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Previous science education grants from HHMI have helped BU establish its summer research program and bring new life sciences faculty to campus.  As Lipton sees it, what better way to build on that program than by helping young minds flourish in a field that has clearly already caught their attention?

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute plays a powerful role in advancing scientific research and education in the United States.  Its scientists, located across the country and around the world, have made important discoveries that advance both human health and our fundamental understanding of biology. The Institute also aims to transform science education into a creative, interdisciplinary endeavor that reflects the excitement of real research. For more information, visit www.hhmi.org.

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