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Undergrads join genomics study

As the genomics initiative continues to take shape, a recent grant will begin to link undergraduates to the larger Duke effort.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute awarded the University a $1.8 million grant to further undergraduate scientific education and research. The grant will provide for additional facilities, courses, student research opportunities, a lecture series and outreach workshops to North Carolina teachers.

"The grants have paralleled areas of research in science that are on the national forefront," said Mary Nijhout, associate dean of Trinity College. "[Howard] Hughes has been instrumental in keeping undergraduate education up with faculty research."

Dr. Joseph Nevins, chair of the newly-merged Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, said the newest HHMI award will allow the benefits of genomics work to better funnel down to undergraduates.

The University had applied for $2.2 million, and the University is funding the $400,000 shortfall to provide for all the programs the proposal requested. Forty-four universities received four-year grants, ranging from $1.2 to $2.2 million and totaling $80 million. Duke was one of only a handful of institutions to win all four grants that HHMI have offered<in 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002, Nijhout said.

The past three proposals, however, focused on neurobiology. Signaling the University1s growing interest in genomic research, the latest proposal focuses on bioinformatics and genomics. The University announced its $200 million proposal for the Institute of Genome Sciences and Policy in fall 2000.

Dean of Trinity College Robert Thompson, who wrote the proposal, said Duke's multidisciplinary approach in designing the genomics initiative<which spans across many schools and disciplines<made the University an ideal candidate for the grant. "Duke is unique in that we have committed to engaging in ethical and environmental conversations about the effects of genomic technology," he said. "We have students interested in public policy, the environment and biological sciences, and the grant is designed to provide avenues for students to pursue those interests in genomics."

Specifically, by fall 2003, there will be six new first-year seminars in genomics and bioinformatics, two new laboratory courses, four new upper-level science, technology and society courses, four new senior capstone courses and modifications to three existing biology courses.

"The Howard Hughes Program is a fabulous thing," Provost Peter Lange said. "It's the best model of vertical integration in the strategic plan that we could have."

The latest grant will also create a fourth summer research program open to between 10 and 12 rising juniors and seniors each year.

Previous HHMI grants have created three similar programs, including a pre-college program for local high school students, an eight-week research fellows program for rising Duke sophomores and a high school teachers1 program in lab instruction.

"I think programs like these can be a life-changing experience for many of those involved," said Deborah Wahl, associate director of undergraduate research for Trinity College, who has managed the HHMI grants since 1990. "Nationally, we hope it increases the numbers who not only go on in the sciences, but also make a larger population that is more scientifically literate."

Senior Rebecca Ahrens participated in a neurological pharmacology research fellows program two summers ago. She is currently applying to both medical schools and graduate programs and hopes to pursue more research.

"[The program] exposes students to different resources than you normally experience in school," Ahrens said. "It gives you an opportunity to do research without committing to do it for life."

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