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Tim Stearns named Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor

Biologist Tim Stearns has been selected as Stanford's first Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor. He is one of 20 professors from 19 universities whose appointments were announced by the Maryland-based biomedical research institute on Sept. 18. All are tenured faculty with a keen interest in improving undergraduate science education.

"Each is a leading researcher who will receive $1 million over the next four years to bring the creativity they have shown in the lab to the undergraduate classroom," HHMI officials said.

Teaching of undergraduates tends to be undervalued at research universities, noted HHMI Vice President Peter J. Bruns. "We want the HHMI Professors to demonstrate that active, productive scientists can be effective teachers too," he added.

Stearns and the other appointees are the first to hold HHMI professorships. They were chosen from among 150 nominees.

 'Pre-grad' program

An associate professor of biological sciences and of genetics, Stearns will use his HHMI endowment to create a "pre-grad" program at Stanford that is similar to established pre-med programs on campus.

"Undergraduates who want to become doctors usually major in biology," HHMI officials noted. "These 'pre-meds' make up the majority of biology majors at most universities."

Stearns' pre-grad program is designed to overcome that bias by recruiting and training undergraduates who are interested in science and technology but who might have been turned off to biology with a pre-med focus.

"Premier research institutions in this country don't make full use of their potential for training undergraduates to be practicing scientists," Stearns explained. "This is partly because of a lack of resources to support teaching by talented faculty and partly because the teaching mission tends to focus on the large numbers of pre-med students."

The pre-grad program will offer a new course on the methods and logic of biological experimentation using the primary literature of scientific journals rather than textbooks. Students will take part in a project lab conducted by research faculty and will participate in a summer of research between their junior and senior years. They also will have the opportunity to attend scientific conferences and meet working scientists involved in academic research, biotechnology, the pharmaceutical industry, publishing and government.

 Inspirational teachers

Stearns' undergraduate experience at Cornell University inspired his pre-grad plan. "I worked with Tom Fox on his studies of mitochondria in yeast cells. It was an exciting experience and made me decide to get a Ph.D. in biology," he noted.

In graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stearns worked with David Botstein, now a professor of genetics at Stanford, whom he credits with shaping his interest in teaching. "David emphasized the relationship between teaching and research," Stearns recalled. "The idea that research and teaching are separate endeavors is artificial -- the experience of teaching helps you to do better science."

A cell biologist, Stearns' research focuses on the relationship between the cell cycle and the cytoskeleton. Associate editor of the journals Genetics and Molecular Biology of the Cell, he is also a recipient of Stanford's Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching.

"The feeling of being on the edge of the unknown -- that is what research is all about," Stearns observed. "In most undergraduate labs, particularly at large universities, students are just repeating experiments someone else already did many years ago. That isn't science."


By Mark Shwartz

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