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W&L Receives $1.3 Million Grant to Support Biological Sciences

Washington and Lee University has received a $1.3 million grant from the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to support the University’s undergraduate biological sciences programs. W&L was one of only 48 institutions out of 192 applicants to receive a grant.

“This grant will help to lift all of our science departments to a new level of energy and collaboration for the benefit of students and faculty alike,” said June Aprille, W&L’s provost. Aprille holds a Ph.D. in physiology and specializes in cellular metabolism.

The core features of the proposal:

  1. An HHMI Fellows Program will engage students in two years of study including research preparation, summer research, travel to laboratories and professional meetings, and on-campus programs. “It will be an enriched and expanded version of our current R.E. Lee Research Program,” said Helen I’Anson, W&L’s HMMI program director and professor of biology and neuroscience.
  2. Two new faculty positions will add expertise and leadership in bioinformatics and computational biology. Current faculty will be able to attend workshops or visit other laboratories. “The biosciences are becoming increasingly quantitative and much more interdisciplinary, as research teams tackle problems at the interface of biology with other sciences,” said I’Anson. “These faculty members will spearhead our move to improve the quantitative skills of our current faculty and students.”
  3. Development of the bioscience curriculum. “This feature provides us with an opportunity to revamp our curriculum to reflect a more interdisciplinary and quantitative bioscience world,” said I’Anson.
  4. New service-learning courses will enable W&L students to develop science modules and teach them in local K-5 classrooms. W&L will offer a related Summer Science Institute for science instruction to local teachers. “The HHMI grant is great for W&L and our students,” said Fred LaRiviere, assistant professor of chemistry, “and since it will allow us to greatly expand our science education outreach efforts with the local elementary schools, the benefits of this grant will extend into the community as well.”

A committee of W&L faculty and staff composed the grant proposal last spring and summer. The committee included I’Anson; Paul Cabe, associate professor of biology; James Eason, assistant professor of physics and engineering; Mimi Elrod, director of summer scholars; Bill Hamilton, associate professor of biology; Larry Hurd, professor of biology; LaRiviere; Simon Levy, assistant professor of computer science; Tyler Lorig, professor of psychology and neuroscience; David Marsh, associate professor of biology; Rance Necaise, associate professor of computer science; and Frank Settle, professor of chemistry.

HMMI encourages institutions that apply for a grant to be creative in their proposals, and to recognize novel strategies that work well in a variety of settings.

“The HHMI grant is going to be especially important for the Neuroscience Program at W&L,” said Tyler Lorig, professor of psychology and neuroscience. “When most people think of neuroscience, they think about brains, neurons and microscope slides. That’s certainly a critical part of what we do, but neuroscience has grown to encompass even more. Computer modeling has become an important part of the discipline. This grant will make sure our students are prepared for this new quantitative emphasis in our field.”

I’Anson and the HHMI Advisory Committee will launch the program this September. In addition to I’Anson, the members of the Advisory Committee are Provost Aprille; LaRiviere; Levy; Lorig; Marsh; Irina Mazilu, assistant professor of physics and engineering; and Lena Ojure, director of teacher education at W&L.

HHMI, a nonprofit medical research organization, is dedicated to discovering and disseminating new knowledge in the basic life sciences. Established in 1953 by the aviator and industrialist Howard Hughes, HHMI is one of the largest philanthropies in the world, with an endowment of $14.8 billion in 2005.

“Liberal arts colleges—particularly some of our grantee institutions—have long been successful in educating future scientists,” said HHMI President Thomas R. Cech. “The undergraduate years are vital to attracting and retaining students who will be the future of science. We want students to experience science as the creative, challenging and rewarding endeavor that it is.”