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At Home in the Lab: HHMI and Undergraduate Research

By Jane Carlson

When Steve Kim '07 retreats to the neuroscience laboratory in Umbeck Science-Mathematics Center, the double major in biochemistry and neuroscience from Northbrook, Illinois, feels right at home.

Kim spends up to 10 hours a week in the lab, either conducting research or using the space as a familiar spot where he can study and unwind. A 2006 Hughes Summer Scholar, Kim didn't just become more comfortable in the lab during the 10 weeks he spent investigating the effects of caffeine on the brain with Assistant Professor of Biology Esther Penick. The experience also changed his goals for the future and his perspective on research.

"It feels like this is my lab," says Kim. "I know now that I belong in a lab setting."

Kim is one of 18 Knox students who completed summer research in 2005 and 2006 funded by a $1 million dollar grant awarded to Knox in 2004 by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). By the time the four-year grant period is over, close to 40 students in science disciplines across the curriculum will have completed research funded by the HHMI grant.

The current summer research opportunities funded by the HHMI grant -- Hughes Summer Scholars and Hughes Medical Apprentices -- fall into two categories, but share a common goal: to provide talented undergraduate science students the financial means and time, as well as the access to mentors and facilities, needed to conduct serious academic research.

For each year of the four-year HHMI grant, members of the Knox science faculty select up to eight students, including those from traditionally underrepresented groups, working in any science discipline to be Hughes Summer Scholars. These students receive a $3,200 stipend, plus allowances for room and board and research supplies, to spend 10 weeks doing research at Knox with faculty mentors. Students have been chosen to do research in physics, psychology, biology, chemistry, and computer science, as well as in interdisciplinary projects that blur the lines of traditional scientific disciplines.

In addition, the science faculty select up to two students per year as Hughes Medical Apprentices, who receive a $3,400 stipend to conduct biomedical research with leading investigators at select research-intensive institutions in the Midwest. Both Hughes Summer Scholars and Hughes Medical Apprentices receive additional funds for travel and expenses related to presenting their research at academic conferences.

Like many Knox students, Kim had previously conducted independent research with faculty members and benefited from the experience. But the Hughes Summer Scholar program allowed him to focus solely on the project -- and get a taste of conducting research full-time.

"During the summer, you are fully devoted to the research, and it's easier to focus on what you are doing without the pressures of other classes and activities," says Kim. "Before the summer, I knew I wanted to go to medical school. Now, when I apply to schools, I will look for schools with research institutes."

HHMI research opportunities complement the tradition of undergraduate research that has been a fundamental aspect of a Knox education since the creation of the Honors Program in the 1950s. Numerous foundations and the College itself have provided support to Knox students engaged in research projects during the summer and the school year. The Hughes Summer Scholars and Hughes Medical Apprentices programs contribute to that tradition, with many of the students conducting research between their junior and senior years, then completing senior Honors projects. Of the students who completed summer research scholarships from Knox's first two HHMI grants -- received in 1991 and 1993 -- nearly 90 percent went on to careers in science and medicine.

"This support from HHMI recognizes the commitment of the faculty, students, and staff to further independent academic work that provides skills and confidence that later make Knox graduates leaders in a range of fields, not least of which is medical and scientific research," says Associate Dean of the College Stephen Bailey.