Hope College is one of only a dozen colleges and universities nationwide and the only institution in Michigan selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to implement a new genomics course that will involve incoming freshmen in cutting-edge research during their first semester in college.

The program, the Phage Genomics Research Initiative, has been developed by HHMI's Science Education Alliance, which is a new initiative intended to help shape science education nationwide. HHMI is committing a total of $4 million overall over the first four years of the program, including the support given to all of the individual colleges and universities.

The research-based, year-long laboratory course has been designed to provide beginning college students with a true research experience that will teach them how to approach scientific problems creatively and hopefully solidify their interest in a career in science.

"The key is that it's focusing on first-year students to get them into that investigative mode as quickly as possible," said biologist Dr. Aaron Best, who with colleague Dr. Joseph Stukey is directing the college's participation in the program and will be teaching the course. "That is not being emphasized at many institutions across the nation, except through this program."

Best noted that the new course will fit well as an extension of the college's broader emphasis on using research as a teaching tool.

"Hope has a strong history of incorporating undergraduate students into active research programs of individual faculty members, and we've been using open research questions in our advanced coursework in recent years," Best said. "This new initiative will enable us to create a dedicated research experience in the context of first-year coursework that is modeled on work we have done in advanced courses. We are also excited by the potential for future collaboration with the other institutions that are participating."

Hope will offer the two-semester course beginning in the fall of 2008 for up to 20 students each year. They will work collaboratively with their faculty mentors in isolating and characterizing previously unknown bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria. During the fall semester they will collect viruses from the local environment and then isolate, purify and amplify the viruses' DNA. One virus from each of the participating colleges and universities will then be sent to a national genome sequencing center to prepare phage DNA libraries and sequence the DNA over the semester break. In the spring semester the students will receive the DNA sequence data and reconstruct and annotate the sequence using techniques of bioinformatics.

Ultimately, the final phage sequence information developed by the students will be deposited into public databases for use by the extended scientific community, and student findings could be published in scientific journals.

Best noted that the college is hoping that the experience will motivate the students to get involved in ongoing research projects at the college. "Our goal would be to use this as a springboard to get those students into individual labs with professors," he said.

The Science Education Alliance (SEA) is a new direction for HHMI, which for two decades has funded science education programs run by faculty and teachers at institutions across the United States. By creating the SEA, HHMI is taking a more active role in catalyzing change in science education.

The course is being piloted at the University of Pittsburgh during the current, 2007-08 school year. HHMI intends to include 36 institutions in the SEA program, adding 12 per year in 2009 and 2010, and anticipates that approximately 720 students will have participated by the time the program concludes.

HHMI's support to the participating institutions includes resources to develop the course, reagents and laboratory components, computing support and software, and an Internet-based networking infrastructure for all participants. Participating faculty will meet three times with SEA staff and scientists before teaching the course.

In addition to Hope, the institutions chosen for the program's first year are Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh, Pa.; the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.; James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.; Oregon State University in Corvallis; Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga.; the University of California, San Diego; the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of Louisiana at Monroe; the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.; the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, in Baltimore; and Washington University in St. Louis, in Missouri.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which was founded in 1953 by aviator and industrialist Howard Hughes, is a nonprofit medical research organization based in Chevy Chase, Md., and emphasizes serving society through biomedical research and science education. One of the nation's largest philanthropies, the institute has an endowment of $16.3 billion and commits almost $700 million a year for research and $80 million in grant support for science education. The SEA is headquartered at HHMI's Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Va.

Hope's selection for the Phage Genomics Research Initiative follows having received major support from the institute nearly four years ago. Hope is currently in the fourth year of a four-year, $1.5 million grant received from HHMI in 2004, part of $49.7 million in grants awarded to 42 baccalaureate and master's degree institutions in 17 states and Puerto Rico to support a variety of programs to improve undergraduate science education. HHMI invited institutions to apply for those awards based on their record of preparing students for graduate education and careers in research, teaching or medicine.