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Science Educators Strike It Rich

Awards: Million-dollar grants go to 20 U.S. scholars, including four in California.


Sometimes, Manuel Ares might say from his own unhappy experience, scientific study can be a little too exciting.

Eight months ago, an overnight fire of unknown origin swept through Ares' laboratory at UC Santa Cruz, destroying strains of genetic material and data the biology professor had accumulated and studied for 14 years.

The loss devastated Ares and his research team, whose work in genetic function within cells is related to the Human Genome Project, the national effort to map the genes in human DNA.

On Tuesday, the biology professor, his work largely back on track, got exciting news of a more positive nature: He is among 20 U.S. scholars announced as winners of $1-million awards aimed at making science more engaging for undergraduate students.

"It's been an amazing year," Ares said, chuckling a little, after the announcement of his award and others by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit medical research organization based in Maryland. "After what we went through, it's very nice to enjoy the good things like this."

Ares was one of four California scientists to win. Two winners work at UCLA and one is at Stanford.

The Hughes institute has a long history of supporting science education at U.S. colleges and universities, awarding nearly $500 million to that end during the last 10 years. But it had never before given individual awards for undergraduate teaching.

Thomas Cech, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist who heads the institute, said its aim is to help overcome a staleness that has crept into science education nationwide, despite the quickening pace of scientific discovery.

"Science has become very much a big lecture course topic and it's lost touch with the way scientists really operate--by bouncing around exciting ideas in small groups and thinking of ways to contest them," Cech said. "We want to recapture that excitement."

Announcement of the awards comes just a week after the release of a report by the National Research Council urging universities to overhaul their undergraduate biology teaching.

One of the authors of that report applauded the new awards Tuesday. "The transformation we need will only occur through grass-roots efforts like this," said Stanford neurobiology professor Lubert Stryer.

The award winners were nominated by their universities and asked to submit extensive proposals to the institute. About 150 were nominated, Cech said.

All of the winners, he said, are gifted professors who exhibit a talent for teaching and research. "Their lectures tend to be a lot of fun," Cech said.

The winners at UCLA were Robert Goldberg, a biology professor whose research focuses on seeds, and colleague Utpal Banerjee, who uses fruit flies to study the nature of cell communication. Both men came from the department of molecular, cell and developmental biology.

"We're just absolutely delighted," said Fred Eiserling, UCLA's dean of life sciences. "For one institution to get two of these awards, we hope, will help dispel the idea that a big public university can't have outstanding teaching."

Goldberg, a 27-year veteran of the UCLA faculty, will focus partly on non-science majors, bringing them into the lab to learn how to make seeds from genetic raw material.

"They'll learn how to make these seeds, look at all the genes involved in how seeds grow and develop," he said.

His aim, he said, is to help these undergraduates understand how science affects them.

"If people aren't educated about this, how can they make informed decisions?" he asked.

Banerjee, now the department chair, has been at UCLA since 1988. Both he and Goldberg have won teaching awards at the university, as well as awards given by UCLA alumni for excellence in teaching, research and service.

Banerjee's project involves bringing undergraduates into his lab in relatively large numbers, about 100 each year, to study the eyes and blood of mutant fruit flies.

"So many bright students never find out what research is all about until just before they graduate," he said. "The research is so exciting, it tends to transform them."

Stanford's winner, Timothy Stearns, is an associate professor of biological sciences, studying how cells divide. Stearns was traveling in Europe when the awards were announced Tuesday.

Colleagues described him as a gifted teacher--and musician--who hopes to target students interested in science and technology who may have been turned off by the typical pre-med focus in many biology departments.

At UC Santa Cruz, Ares says he will focus on a project that will allow undergraduates to use advanced instruments not typically available to them, including one involved in genetic splicing. He intends to bring students together in an interdisciplinary research team.

"It'll be a lot of fun," he said.

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