McConnell named Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor

July 2nd, 2014
Susan McConnell

Susan McConnell

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has named biologist SUSAN MCCONNELL, the Susan B. Ford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, one of 15 HHMI professors. According to the HHMI press release, each professor receives $1 million over five years to create activities that integrate their research with student learning in ways that enhance undergraduate students’ understanding of science.

According to the press release: “HHMI professors are accomplished research scientists who are making science more engaging for undergraduates. By providing HHMI professors with the funds and support to implement their ideas, HHMI hopes to empower these individuals to create new models for teaching science at research universities. The newly selected group—who represent 13 universities across the country—will join the community of HHMI professors who are working together to change undergraduate science education in the United States.”

Said McConnell, “Now more than ever, our ability to communicate science to a broad audience is essential for the public support and funding of basic science. Just as importantly, effective communication is central to the success of any Stanford undergrad, in any field, both now and in the future. Through this award, I hope to engage undergraduates in the life sciences in communicating science to a variety of audiences and through many media, including the arts.”

This is how HHNI explains McConnell’s work on its website:

“Neurobiology, education and art can be distinct pursuits, but for Susan McConnell, they overlap and complement one another.

“In her lab at Stanford, McConnell is working to understand how neural circuits are constructed in the mammalian brain. She explores several key steps in that developmental process: how neurons are produced as the brain’s cerebral cortex develops, how new neurons are assigned their identities, and how those cells are wired together into information-processing circuits.

“Her lab’s findings have opened new lines of research in several distinct areas of neurobiology. They have determined at what point in their development cells in the cortex commit to becoming specific types of specialized neurons, and shown that those cells lose their ability to respond to fate-inducing cues over time. McConnell also found that cells called subplate neurons are responsible for pioneering early connections between the brain’s cortex and thalamus, and developed genetic methods to explore the patterning of the early telencephalon, the embryonic structure from which the cerebrum develops.

“She brings her enthusiasm for neuroscience into the classroom, and Stanford has recognized McConnell with its two highest teaching honors, the Hoagland Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and the Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching. Her course on neural development, which she has taught at Stanford since 1989, is praised by students for its impact not just in conveying course material, but also in teaching them ‘how to think.’

“From 2010-2012, McConnell co-chaired a university-wide commission that evaluated undergraduate education at Stanford and provided recommendations for the future. The intensive analysis culminated with recommendations for a wide variety of changes, including a new system of breadth requirements based on ‘ways of thinking’ and ‘ways of doing’ rather than on traditional academic disciplines.

“That experience prompted McConnell—who also teaches a course in conservation photography at Stanford—to consider the role of creative and artistic expression in the sciences. As a result, she piloted The Senior Reflection in Biology, a senior-year capstone experience in which students in the life sciences are invited to undertake an in-depth creative project that joins a compelling scientific subject with a passion for the arts. At the same time, she revised the biology courses that enable students to fulfill Stanford’s ‘Writing in the Major’ requirement, creating opportunities for students to either write for scientific audiences or to translate biology topics for non-scientists.”

Visit the HHMI website.