Program That Engages First-Year Students in Research Awarded $1.6 Million by Howard Hughes Medical Institute

May 20, 2010

AUSTIN, Texas — The University of Texas at Austin has received $1.6 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to expand the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) in the College of Natural Sciences and get more first-year science students engaged in authentic research.

The funding is part of a new round of grants from HHMI totaling $79 million that will help universities nationwide strengthen undergraduate and precollege science education.

The best undergraduate research assignments tend to go to third- and fourth-year students who have taken introductory classes, labs and major requirements. While this approach rewards dedication, it can also close doors for talented students who aren't quickly convinced they want to pursue a career in science.

The FRI is finding ways to engage more students in research earlier, says Sarah Simmons, director of the program and assistant dean in the College of Natural Sciences.

"Instead of just letting the most persistent, high-flying students get access to precious resources, we decided to expose as many students as we could to research early on," she says.

The FRI was created in 2006 with the help of an initial HHMI grant. The program will grow with the most recent HHMI grant.

FRI features year-long Research Streams that allow first-year students to tackle small parts of faculty members' research projects.

"When you allow students to get excited about science by trying it, it lays the foundation for all kinds of success later," says Simmons.

Some 500 students each year participate in research streams already. The new grant — the scope of which also includes faculty development and outreach to high school science programs — will make room for more students and include a focus on more cross-disciplinary research streams.

New streams that have been proposed include one based on algal genomics that would marry molecular biology with bioinformatics and introduce students to a flourishing field of research with relevance to biofuel development. In another proposed stream, students would work in the lab and in the field to understand the evolutionary relationships between groups of organisms.

So far, FRI's results suggest that early research experiences can catalyze further study in science and improved performance in upper-level classes.

The research streams have also improved the recruitment and retention of science students from diverse backgrounds.

"We hope that the experience will either light a fire in them so that they become scientists, or if not, that they at least understand what scientists really do," Simmons says. "We hope it's something that can inform what they do for the rest of their lives."

HHMI is making the award through its Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program. Fifty research universities in 30 states and the District of Columbia will be awarded a total of $70 million through the undergraduate program. A complementary initiative, the HHMI Professors Program, will award a total of $9 million to 13 HHMI professors to focus on solving important problems facing science education.

For more information, contact: Lee Clippard, College of Natural Sciences, 512-232-0675; Dr. Sarah Simmons, assistant dean, 512-232-9029.