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Tufts' David Walt Named Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor

Tufts' David Walt Named Howard Hughes Medical Institute ProfessorRenowned Scientist Will Use $1 Million Grant to Bring "Joy of Research" to Undergraduates and K-12 Students

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [04.06.06] David Walt, the Robinson Professor of Chemistry at Tufts University, was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor yesterday. He will receive a $1 million grant from HHMI to advance innovation in undergraduate science teaching. The awards, made to 20 leading research scientists nationwide, follow a search among faculty at 100 leading research universities to find those “who, through their teaching and mentoring, are striving to ignite the scientific spark in a new generation of students.”

The Walt Laboratory at Tufts is world-renowned for its pioneering work that applies micro and nanotechnology to urgent biological problems such as the analysis of genetic variation and the behavior of single cells, as well as the practical application of arrays to the detection of explosives, chemical warfare agents, and food and waterborne pathogens.

“Our laboratory investigates new ways to measure things,” explains Walt. “We create very small arrays containing thousands of features—ten thousand features can easily fit on the head of a pin. Researchers in the laboratory use these arrays to study fundamental aspects of biochemistry, genetics, cell biology, olfaction, and they also develop practical ways to measure such things as water and air contamination.”

While Walt is at the forefront of scientific innovation, he believes that the excitement that characterizes real-world science is often lacking in the classroom. As an HHMI professor, he will use his $1 million to infuse undergraduate and K-12 education with the excitement of scientific discovery.

“My program is designed to bring the joy of research to undergraduates,” he says. “I want to fully integrate that experience into undergraduate research, teaching, and outreach efforts and to expand the accessibility of scientific research to students who would not normally have the opportunity.”

Discovery-based program will tackle real problems

In what Walt calls a “discovery-based” program, students will not be given “recipes” that require them to replicate others’ research. “That’s boring—and it’s not how scientific research works,” Walt says.

Instead, they will tackle real world problems for which scientists are still seeking solutions. “Students might decide how to determine a genetic diagnosis of everyone in the class,” Walt explains. “We can perform a laboratory analysis of an individual’s blood to test for hundreds of thousands of things. This procedure would cost thousands of dollars today and require a $250,000 dollar instrument. How can we take that kind of capability out of the lab and into the high school or college classroom?”

Walt hopes that over the next four years his new programs will attract undergraduates who traditionally do not pursue experimental science and will also underscore the importance of integrating fields like chemistry, biology, and engineering. “For example, our lab’s research with living cell arrays generates huge amounts of data,” he says. “I want to enlist Tufts Computer Science majors to apply contemporary methods for analyzing complex biological data and to prepare them for continued studies and work in the bio-informatics area.”

Putting K-12 Students at the Cutting Edge of Chemistry & Biology

Almost 20 years ago, Walt started conducting chemistry demonstrations in his children’s schools. He gradually transitioned that outreach program to his Tufts students. “Many of my students have told me that this outreach experience was the most exciting thing they ever did at Tufts,” Walt says.

So, it’s not surprising that Walt also plans to use his HHMI grant to mobilize undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral associates to reach out to K-12 students. One goal: enabling K-12 classes to conduct all aspects of a modern microarray experiment.

“Undergraduates and K-12 students will learn the excitement of working at the cutting edge of the chemistry/biology interface and will gain direct knowledge about contemporary research methods as well as the ethical and societal issues surrounding the use of genetic analysis technologies,” he notes.

Filling the Scientific Pipeline

His HHMI-funded efforts will, Walt hopes, boost the flow in the “scientific pipeline.” “We’re training one-tenth the number of science Ph.D.s as China,” he says. “I’m at the stage in my career where I feel it’s important to contribute to helping the health of the scientific enterprise.”

The research universities invited to nominate HHMI professors in the competition were chosen on the basis of their records in preparing students for graduate education in science and careers in scientific research and medicine. A panel of distinguished scientists, educators, and HHMI staff reviewed the proposals, evaluating the impact of the proposed program in enriching undergraduate science education and involving increasing numbers of undergraduates—including non-science majors, women and underrepresented minority students—in research or other inquiry-based activities. They looked at the quality of the applicant's research and educational accomplishments and the potential for the proposed program to serve as a model in other settings.




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