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Built To Last

A question of ownership

by Celia Henry Arnaud
November 10, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 45

It's all about ownership. The Rainforest Expedition & Laboratory course developed by Scott A. Strobel of Yale University seeks to excite students about research by giving them ownership of their projects. For the program to survive over the long haul, however, Yale needs to take ownership, too.

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Built To Last

The funding for the class comes from a four-year, $1 million grant that Strobel received from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as part of its HHMI Professors program. Strobel was inspired by the Phage-Hunters program developed by Graham F. Hatfull, an HHMI Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. In Hatfull's program, high school and undergraduate students discover and characterize bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) from soil samples. As in the Yale program, each student has his or her own project.

"Undergraduate students can very quickly spot the difference between an exercise and an authentic research experience," Hatfull says. "It helps if you can identify projects that offer that sense of discovery in a digestible and ready manner."

Thomas R. Cech, the outgoing president of HHMI and Strobel's postdoctoral mentor in the 1990s, appreciates the excitement that the Yale program has generated, but he retains some skepticism about whether such a program could be implemented more generally. "If a program requires a million dollars every four years to keep going, it's not sustainable," Cech says.

"One of the exciting things about his program is taking students to exotic destinations like Ecuador. That's going to be harder for state universities, because they're not going to have the resources," adds Cech, who has shared his concerns with Strobel.

Strobel acknowledges that many schools can't come up with $75,000 annually to send 16 students and their instructors to South America for two weeks.

Labor costs also make the program expensive. Strobel uses some of his HHMI funds to pay the students for their 10 weeks of summer research and to cover part of the salary of postdoctoral associate Lori-Ann Boulanger, who oversees the lab.

Strobel believes other schools could adapt his project to be less costly. "Every university is located in a unique environment with access to plants that can serve as hosts for these microbes," he says. "The idea of discovering novel biodiversity, having projects that are unique and personal and where there's ownership, that's all transferable."

Yale's administration has been pleased with the rain forest class on two fronts—as a way to get students involved in research and as a way to bring an international flavor to the curriculum.

Strobel first discussed his idea for the HHMI Professorship proposal over lunch with William Segraves, associate dean for science education at Yale. "I was just blown away," Segraves says, by the way the class gave students ownership over their projects rather than relegating them to a small piece of a larger research operation.

The course is also a hit with the administration because "Yale is in the midst of a major international educational push," Segraves says. "The way Scott envisioned the course—where the students would learn about these other places, where they would learn about the ecosystem, where they would learn about the cultures, and where they would travel abroad to do these things—brought in an international aspect."

But will Yale's satisfaction be sufficient to sustain the class when the HHMI funding inevitably dries up?

Strobel is optimistic that the class will continue past the first grant, which still has two years left. The university has already made a financial commitment that will make it possible to begin institutionalizing the program at Yale, Strobel says.

"Scott has developed an important program—one that provides real hands-on experience," Segraves says. "We will make sure this remains a part of the Yale curriculum."


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