Since the dawn of discovery, the very essence of science has been to ask a question that nobody has asked before and then set out to answer it. However, it’s not often that the person asking the question is an undergraduate student.

Meet Joseph Teyim, a biochemistry major at Lehigh University, who—as a junior transfer student—asked a question after he saw something he didn’t understand while doing lab research in the SEA-PHAGES program, sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). SEA-PHAGES stands for Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science.

Teyim, a rising senior, was doing experiments last fall on a novel mycobacteriophage— a virus that infects bacteria—that had been isolated and characterized by another student as part of the yearlong SEA-PHAGES course taught by Vassie Ware, professor of molecular biology and co-director of Lehigh’s HHMI program. He noticed that other phages that had almost nothing in common with the one he was studying were exhibiting the same immunity properties as his phage.

“I went back to Dr. Ware and said, ‘This is what I’m observing. Why am I getting this?’ She looked at it and said, ‘I don’t know.’ That phrase, ‘I don’t know,’ you rarely get that from someone like Dr. Ware,” Teyim recalls, laughing heartily.

It turns out no one knew the answer. Teyim had discovered something nobody else had seen previously. Over the summer, he continued to pursue his question using an array of molecular and bioinformatics tools while taking part in Lehigh’s Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute (BDSI), a 10-week, interdisciplinary, research-intensive training program started with funding from HHMI in 2006.

And he had a national team of scientists working on the question with him through the HHMI-supported SEA-PHAGES program, led by Dr. Graham Hatfull’s lab at the University of Pittsburgh. A major paper is being prepared for publication in which Teyim’s research findings will be included, with Teyim credited as an author, Ware says.

“It’s a really humbling feeling,” says Teyim, a Cameroon native who came to the United States in 2010 and attended Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville for two years before transferring to Lehigh. “Something that started as a question in class has grown so big. It has been quite a remarkable experience, I would say.” Remarkable, yes. But the joy of discovery— and the love of research that it fuels in students like Teyim—represents the very essence of Lehigh’s decades-long HHMI program. Since Lehigh received its first competitive grant from HHMI in 1989, the program has helped to radically transform Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics—known as STEM—education at the university.

“I’ve been here long enough to see things change in ways that I know would not have happened as readily, as quickly, had we not had these HHMI seed monies,” Ware says.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, headquartered in Chevy Chase, Md., is a science philanthropy whose mission is “to advance biomedical research and science education for the benefit of humanity.” In 2013, it invested $727 million in U.S. research and provided $80 million in grants and other support for science education. Since 1989, HHMI has had seven competitions among major research universities for science education awards, and Lehigh is one of only a handful of universities to be selected six times, says Neal Simon, Lehigh’s HHMI program director.

The awards, totaling $8.9 million, are recognition that Lehigh has “conceptualized and put forward models that make us leaders in curricular innovation and science education,” Simon says. “That’s why you get the Hughes awards.”

Making a Difference

From the late 1980s into the early 2000s, the three HHMI awards Lehigh received primarily funded retooling introductory courses in the biological sciences to provide more hands-on research experience for undergraduates and renovating laboratory spaces.

“The HHMI programs are a testament to the college’s commitment to involving undergraduate students in meaningful research projects with real-world applications,” adds Donald E. Hall, Herbert and Ann Siegel Dean of the College. “Awards such as HHMI recognize the college’s innovative approaches to undergraduate research and instruction.”

The curricular innovations have been a constant and critical component from the beginning.

“One of the things we did early on was shift the culture to take away the boundary between the classroom and the research laboratory,” Simon says. “We saw integration as a way to enhance life science education.”

In introductory courses, the old pedagogic model of lectures and repeating lab experiments out of textbooks gave way to project-based or discovery-based learning, “or what is now called course-based research experience. That’s the current term du jour,” Simon says.

It's a really humbling feeling. Something that started as a question in class has grown so big. It has been quite a remarkable experience, I would say.

In advanced courses, the HHMI grants spurred biological sciences faculty to bring their research into the classroom, which has been a key to making the program successful for students and faculty.

“That was probably one of the best things that we ever did, because not only did it give students a chance to work in a research area that was obviously of interest to the faculty instructor, but it also gave us a way to sustain the interest of the course from a faculty point of view,” Ware says. “Faculty could see themselves teaching an advanced laboratory course that was always evolving because students were going to continue with a research problem that the faculty member was interested in. So the students could actually learn a set of skills and contribute to a research problem. And the faculty would also like doing that because the students were contributing to their research problem overall.”

By the mid-2000s, it was clear that HHMI’s main focus was on expanding interdisciplinary opportunities for STEM students and promoting a culture shift within academic settings from the traditional siloed approach to one that breaks down boundaries between departments, fields and even colleges. In the 2006 HHMI competition, Simon and Ware conceptualized the BDSI program, which brings together interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate students working with graduate students and faculty leaders.

“We have found that participation changes student and faculty approaches to science. As the number of individuals who have been through BDSI has grown, we see collaborations continuing on a long-term basis, joint papers coming out and new grant proposals submitted and funded,” Simon says. “These reflect a cultural change in an institution.”

Another example is the Bioscience in the 21st Century course, which launched in 2007 with HHMI funding. Offered in the first semester and open to first-year students and the Lehigh community at large, the course brings in up to 30 faculty members representing a wide variety of disciplines to share their perspectives on biological problems. The class has grown from 40 to 50 students to more than 250.

For example, a neuroscience unit not only draws on the expertise of biologists, but also brings in electrical engineers and materials scientists, among others, working on neuroscience problems. Students learn about the fascinating work going on in other departments and some now avail themselves of research opportunities in departments outside their own major, Ware says.

“The course is an indicator of the culture change that has occurred here,” Ware says. “Students were not crossing into other departments or colleges to do research when they had their primary major in another department. We’ve got multiple, multiple examples of that now. And that really has been one of the wonderful outcomes of the interdisciplinary approach. The curriculum and research have fed each other in ways that have changed culture, not only among faculty, but among students.”

Emily Heckman, a molecular biology major and rising senior who has been involved in SEA-PHAGES and BDSI, says the early interdisciplinary course helped broaden her perspectives. 

“It exposed to me what my personal strengths were and enabled me to use them more effectively,” Heckman says. “It also taught me to ask for help where I needed it and not to rely just on my own strengths, which I think is an important lesson to learn.”

HHMI funding also supported a series of highly successful visiting scholars who shared the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations to their work and careers.

With the SEA-PHAGES program, Heckman says, she discovered her life’s passion: to pursue a career in scientific research.

“We were able to do an experiment not really knowing what the outcome was going to be and, based on the results, set up new experiments and ask new questions that have never been asked before,” Heckman says. “There’s something quite addictive about that. The pursuit of new knowledge is exciting, and as a freshman, it really opened my eyes to what potential I had for research opportunities.”

Lehigh joined the second cohort of the national SEA-PHAGES program in 2009. An outgrowth of Hatfull’s research efforts at Pitt, the program has enlisted students from more than 100 institutions to study phages in the hope that the research will lead to new diagnostic tools and therapeutics to mitigate or even cure tuberculosis.

Over the years, the SEA-PHAGES program has become an integral part of the university’s efforts to instill a culture that prizes interdisciplinary and discovery-based learning. 

“When they’re working hands-on, a lot ofthese things stick better,” says Ware, winner of the 2015 Christian & Mary Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching as well as the College of Arts and Sciences Teaching Award.

“They get out of the habit of ‘I have to memorize this, I have to know this formula.’ They’re working with it, so it becomes almost second nature. These are evidence-based practices that have been shown to have an impact. That’s why the SEA-PHAGES program works so well, because the students are actually ‘doing’ science, as opposed to reading about it.”

Creating Connections

Providing first-year students with what Simon calls “the opportunity to participate in the creation of new knowledge” is also a key part of Lehigh’s most recent 2014 HHMI grant, which continues support for curricular innovations while funding two new programs— BioConnect and RARE (Rapidly Accelerated Research Experience)—aimed at increasing retention of STEM students.

A 2012 report by the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology warned that the United States could face a shortfall of one million STEM workers within a decade, an outcome that could be averted by increasing retention of STEM students. Only about 40 percent of STEM majors nationally wind up graduating with a STEM degree.

And even though Lehigh fares much better, with a STEM retention level around 70 percent, “we can do better,” Simon says. The two new programs focus on students from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM fields. BioConnect builds bridges to community college students, with Northampton Community College (NCC) as the first partner institution. The BioConnect program provides opportunities for community college students identified as likely candidates to transfer to Lehigh to engage in bioscience interdisciplinary research, mentoring and STEM community building experiences during the academic year and summer.

“I see BioConnect as a lifeline for students who transfer in,” Ware says. “It’s essential.”

During their first two years on campus, Lehigh students gain a tremendous advantage over transfer students in terms of research experiences, access to biosciences faculty and familiarity with the research culture.

By the time I graduate, I’ll have had three-and-a-half years of research experience under my belt, whereas the others won’t have been as fortunate.

To help assimilate students transferring in after two years, the BioConnect program will provide opportunities for NCC students to enroll in SEA-PHAGES and other inquiry-based courses in the biological sciences core curriculum at Lehigh and also to participate in the BDSI summer program. Students and faculty from the community college will be able to visit Lehigh labs and attend meetings and research symposia, and Lehigh faculty also will visit NCC. The program also includes a Scholar in Residence component for community college faculty.

 RARE is an ambitious, pre-admission-tograduation science immersion program designed to not only increase STEM retention, but create what Simon and Ware call “a community of scholars mentality” for the students involved. The first cohort of 16 students was chosen this spring and attended a two-week orientation organized in cooperation with the Office of the First Year Experience, the Office for Academic Outreach and STEM faculty. The program features introductions to life science, including responsible conduct of research, safety, the laboratory environment, the research enterprise, exposure to primary literature and information technologies; sessions addressing campus culture, academics, resources and support services; and social activities. The RARE program also adopts a team-based advising structure. Simon or Ware will serve as adviser for each student, aided by a “mentoring committee” that also includes another faculty member from the student’s major department and a successful junior or senior “peer mentor” who will provide professional development and career guidance.

Regular meetings with Academic Transitions and Multicultural Affairs staff will round out the new advising approach.

“What we’re trying to do is identify practices from these two programs that can be adapted to the larger STEM community here at Lehigh and nationally,” Simon says.

As part of its grant-making philosophy, HHMI does not believe in funding programs in perpetuity. There is an expectation that institutions will step up to make programs started with HHMI funding sustainable. As Ware puts it: “Hughes is interested in lighting fires. They want it to spread.”

While course development is the first step in ensuring a program that will last in perpetuity, it is the experiential learning through programs like BDSI, RARE and BioConnect that are essential. In order to keep the fire going, Lehigh is seeking philanthropic partners to support the Life Sciences Systems Initiative, which incorporates the experiential learning components of the HHMI grants.

There is no question that HHMI has greatly enhanced Lehigh’s research opportunities. In addition to SEAPHAGES, Heckman has gained invaluable research experience working in the lab of Julie Haas, assistant professor of neuroscience. Haas’ course on The Ever-Changing Brain captivated Heckman and, in addition to working in the professor’s lab during the academic year, she was accepted into the BDSI program to work on a related interdisciplinary project over the summer. Heckman studies electrical synapses between cells in the brain, research that has implications for learning and memory. The BDSI project she worked on this summer focused on circadian rhythms and a potential drug to suppress jet lag.

She also participated in an interdisciplinary Mountaintop project last year related to her phage research that brought together a team of students majoring in molecular biology, bioengineering and materials sciences.

“I’ve I’ve had friends at other schools tell me about their experiences within their biology departments and how they haven’t been able to access research opportunities like this,” Heckman says. “By the time I graduate, I’ll have had three-and-a-half years of research experience under my belt, whereas the others won’t have been as fortunate. So I can really say that the Hughes grants have definitely equipped me and have provided such a tremendous experience thus far.”