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HHMI Professors Program - Getting Biologists Excited About Chemistry

For information on the HHMI Summer Research Fellowship Program, plese click here.

In 2006 Catherine L. Drennan was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor and awarded a one million dollar grant to execute an educational proposal for "Getting Biologists Excited about Chemistry". The HHMI program identifies professors at research universities that have innovative strategies for improving undergraduate science education. With the HHMI funding, Cathy is implementing and expanding a number of initiatives aimed at increasing the understanding of chemical principles among biology students and fostering collaboration and excitement between biologists and chemists. A number of the programs in development have both local and global goals, with initial stages impacting MIT and the local community, and later stages extending to undergraduate and high school chemistry education throughout the country and beyond.


In teaching freshman chemistry at MIT, Cathy was surprised to find that many students enter the class with a passion for medicine and cancer research, but have no concept that the workings of a cell and the details of cancer ARE chemistry. More and more, cutting edge scientific research occurs at the interface of disciplines, yet the majority of introductory college and high school chemistry courses have not changed to build the necessary connections between fields. Essential for the future of biological sciences is a strong understanding of chemistry among scientists. The educational initiatives described below are aimed both at attracting more students to study chemistry by demonstrating the impact of chemistry on biological and medical research and at increasing the interdisciplinary capacity of all scientists.

Who is Involved?

Professor Catherine L. Drennan (
Dr. Elizabeth Vogel Taylor (
Ms. Samantha Beam (

HHMI Programs:

Frehsman Chemistry
Secondary Education
MIT Undergraduate Biochemistry Club (MUBA)
Summer Research Fellowship in Chemical Biology
Research Based Undergraduate Laboratory

Freshman Chemistry In this initiative, the MIT freshman chemistry course, 5.111, and associated problem sets are being infused with biological and medicinal examples that illustrate each chemical principle presented in the course. For example, acid-base chemistry is taught not just in terms of formic acid, but in relation to amino acids and protein interactions. Course 5.111 (fall enrollment of >250 students) is an ideal platform for interdisciplinary teaching because it attracts the target audience of biology-related majors, and because it provides a opportunity for getting these students excited about chemistry early on in their undergraduate careers. For this course, the graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) are extensively trained in teaching interdisciplinary material through a 5.111 TA "boot camp" and related teaching activities throughout the semester.

The new course material debuted in the fall semester of 2007 with biological connections for all of the concepts taught in lectures 19-36 (the second half of the course). New material for the full course (lectures 1-36) will be introduced in the fall of 2008.

Through the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) program, 5.111 course material is available to the world, including syllabi, lecture topics, and videotaped lectures from the fall of 2005. Following the development of the updated class, educators interested in incorporating more biological examples into general chemistry will have access the new course materials as well.

Secondary Education As the freshman chemistry course evolves to include more biological and medicinal examples, the material will be redesigned for the high school level and for incorporation into high school chemistry curricula. In order to provide material that can be easily included in any high school class, the information will be presented as modular units that can be applied as suits the individual teacher. These modules will range from 1 to 2 hour laboratory exercises to five-minute lessons that should fit into even the least flexible lesson plans. This initiative aims to incorporate biochemistry into chemistry courses with the intended outcome of sparking a passion and understanding for chemistry at an early age. Our goal is to capture the excitement that is rampant in the research laboratories at MIT and translate it to the level of secondary education. To achieve this, the material will focus on the real world application of chemical principles, and will give students a concrete idea of "who chemists really are," including women and individuals from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Working closely with local chemistry high school teachers, the material will be tested and ultimately disseminated on the web.

MIT Undergraduate Biochemistry Program (MUBA) MUBA provides an ideal venue for continued dialog with non-chemistry majors, following 5.111. To compensate for the lack of a formal biochemistry program at MIT, MUBA was created to offer academic advice on such topics as interdepartmental course selection and research opportunities, and provide networking opportunities between students. In applying for recognition as an undergraduate chapter of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, MUBA will also provide MIT students with a research connection on a national level. In addition, part of MUBA's mission is to reach out to local high school teachers to help them incorporate biochemistry in the classroom. MUBA members are also involved in volunteering opportunities at the MIT museum, specifically in their Women in Science program.

MUBA is open to any student interested in biological chemistry; students representing at least six different departments are currently involved. MUBA activities include faculty dinners, outreach programs, and career workshops, in addition to student networking events. More information and a schedule of upcoming events can be viewed on the MUBA website.

Summer Research Fellowship in Chemical Biology The Summer Research Fellowship provides interdisciplinary research opportunities for undergraduate students with a physical or quantitative background to conduct research in biological sciences, and for students with a biological background to conduct research in chemistry. The premise of the fellowship is to lower the barrier between chemical and biological research and to promote understanding and collaboration across fields. Faculty members with primary appointments in the Chemistry, Biology, and Health Sciences and Technologies departments are involved in hosting the summer student and providing a graduate student or postdoctoral associate mentor. The undergraduate students are matched with a laboratory based on student interest and the goal of providing an interdisciplinary research experience. Prior to the students' June arrival and throughout the summer, the graduate student and post-doc mentors attend a six-session mentoring seminar based on the Entering Mentoring guide that was developed by Professor Jo Handelsman and colleagues as part of the HHMI Professors Program and on case studies developed by MIT mentors during last year's mentoring program.

The HHMI-MIT Summer Research Fellowship is open to students both from MIT and from colleges and universities around the country. Further information and application details may be found on the program website.

Research-Based Undergraduate Lab in partnership with the MIT URIECA program. We have designed a "research inspired" biochemistry lab course, which was introduced in the spring semester of 2008. In the spirit of this grant, the course aims to demonstrate to students the essential link between chemical principles and biological questions and to highlight the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of scientific research. Unlike typical lab classes, in which each unit deals with a separate skill or assignment that is unrelated to the next, this course was designed to feel like a "real" research project with an overarching goal that connects the individual lab sessions. Through the semester-long lab course, students gain experience in a number of biochemical laboratory techniques in the context of undertaking an exciting and relevant research problem, investigating the cause of drug resistance found in a significant population of CML cancer patients treated with the blockbuster drug Gleevec. Since the lab involves current pharmaceutical topics, the students will experience the direct link between biochemistry and medicine, and we thereby hope to harness the students' interest in disease to demonstrate the impact of biochemistry research.