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Howard Hughes Medical Institute Grants $1 Million to Juniata for Genomics Project

(Posted May 25, 2012)

Biologists Michael Boyle, left, and Vince Buonaccorsi were part of a Juniata team that applied for and received a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Juniata College has received a $1 million research grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to implement and integrate a Genomics Leadership Initiative into the college's curriculum that will combine instruction in science and the humanities to teach students to integrate ideas across disciplines.

The $1 million grant accelerates Juniata's plan to fully integrate the college's Genomics Leadership Initiative, which combines and expands Juniata's existing teaching and research in genomics with a developing curriculum designed to provide a solid foundation in the ethical, legal and societal issues surrounding discoveries in genomics.

Juniata is one of 47 colleges and universities nationwide to receive more than $50 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that will, according to a press release from the institute, "enable the schools to work together to create more engaging science classes, bring real-world research experiences to students, and increase the diversity of students who study science."

"In 2011, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Science Foundation and Howard Hughes Medical Institute combined forces to produce a document called 'Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action,' which articulated a need to engage students in the process of science and to present science as a vibrant and active field," says Vince Buonaccorsi, associate professor of biology. "In our Genomics Leadership Initiative, Juniata and our partner institutions in the GCAT SEEK network take an important step toward implementing the educational vision of our national leadership."

Buonaccorsi, Jill Keeney, professor of biology, and recently retired researcher Michael Boyle established the college's genomics program several years ago in such courses as Genomics, Ethics and Society, Advanced Genetics, Immunology and Genetic Research Methods. In addition Boyle, Buonaccorsi and other members of the Juniata biology faculty recently incorporated genomics into several courses and research projects.
"Collaboration is a vital activity that drives science forward," said HHMI President Robert Tjian. "We believe that collaboration among institutions can have a similar catalytic effect on science education, and we look forward to seeing these schools work together to develop new science and teaching programs that inspire their students."

"We are harnessing our strengths across departments to challenge our students in ways that will make a difference regardless of which technology is trending at the moment. Ultimately, we aim to produce individuals that are supremely prepared for a lifetime of scientific discovery, adept medical practice and informed citizenship."
Vince Buonaccorsi, associate professor of biology


One of the reasons Juniata received the grant was its role in collaborating with several other colleges in creating an offshoot of an existing consortium of liberal arts colleges to provide relatively low cost access to state-of-the-art genome sequencing technology. The resulting Genome Consortium for Active Teaching Using Next-Generation Sequencing, called GCAT-SEEK, allows Juniata and other colleges (the original partners in the consortium are Bucknell University, Duquesne University, Gettysburg College, Hampton University, Hood College, Lock Haven University, Lycoming College, Morgan State University, Mount Aloysius College, Ramapo College of New Jersey and Susquehanna University) to collaborate with the genomic sequencing core facility at Penn State University.

"The genomics revolution is rapidly changing our understanding of the natural world," Buonaccorsi adds. "Juniata faculty and students will be part of that change. We are harnessing our strengths across departments to challenge our students in ways that will make a difference regardless of which technology is trending at the moment. Ultimately, we aim to produce individuals that are supremely prepared for a lifetime of scientific discovery, adept medical practice and informed citizenship."

The steering committee for the GCAT-SEEK consortium includes representatives from Duquesne University, Lycoming College, Susquehanna University and Juniata.

Juniata implemented the GCAT-SEEK program into its biology curriculum last year, due in part to funding by a $49,000 research network grant from the National Science Foundation to Michael Boyle, giving students of small liberal arts colleges the opportunity to get real-world experience on technology that previously was accessible to graduate students.

The grant received from the Hughes Institute as part of the Institute's 2012 Colleges Initiative, where primarily undergraduate institutions were invited to submit proposals in one of six categories. Juniata received its grant for Apprentice-based Undergraduate Research Experiences, where colleges provide research experiences as a vehicle for enhancing science education. Other colleges in this category to receive funding are: College of Charleston, in Charleston, S.C.; Hamline University, in St. Paul, Minn.; Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.; Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Ga.; Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga.; and Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Pa.

Genomic research also has impact well beyond the scientific value of research results. Gaining access to human genetic material raises serious ethical, legal and social implications and the next generation of physicians, scientists and policy specialists must receive training on the ethical and moral issues associated with genomic research.

"Juniata's liberal arts education model and its unique Program of Emphasis curriculum, which allows students to formulate majors of their own design, is an ideal structure for students to receive this critical training," stated Michael Boyle in Juniata's grant proposal. "We will use the GCAT-SEEK network to give students access to the technology and utilize the college's teaching faculty to integrate the humanities and science in order to give students a broad background in the value and limitations of genomic technology as well as its implications for modern biology and society."

The Genomics Leadership Initiative to be funded by the Hughes Medical Institute will include three major steps designed to leave Juniata graduates well positioned for postgraduate study and future leadership roles in modern life sciences research and medical or health-related professional programs. The new initiative will:

--Develop a certification program in genomics. The certification will include 20 to 25 credit hours and four required courses: Genomics, Ethics and Society, at least one course covering molecular biology, genetics and genomics, a statistics course and a bioinformatics course.

-Create a leadership module for science students, using classroom theory and case studies to prepare students for leadership roles in a research environment.

--Establish a structured research program in which undergraduate students use state-of-the-art science and technology related to genomics. The program will provide about 40 funded summer research fellowships for Juniata students.
"What happens during the undergraduate years is vital to the development of the student, whether she will be a scientist, a science educator, or a member of society who is scientifically curious and literate. (The Hughes Institute) is investing in these schools because they have shown they are superb incubators of new ideas and models that might be replicated by other institutions to improve how science is taught in college," said Sean B. Carroll, vice president of science education at the institute. "We know that these schools have engaged faculty. They care deeply about teaching and how effectively their students are learning about science."
Juniata previously received a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Grant in 1992. The $900,000 grant allowed Juniata to revamp its curriculum by teaching organic chemistry in the freshman year and creating a combined chemistry/biology lab. The grant also gave Juniata the opportunity to expand its biology faculty.

Since 1988, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has awarded more than $870 million to 274 colleges and universities to support science education. Those grants have generally been awarded through two separate but complementary efforts, one aimed at undergraduate-focused institutions and the other at research universities. Hughes Institute support has enabled nearly 85,000 students nationwide to work in research labs and developed programs that have helped 100,000 K-12 teachers learn how to teach science more effectively.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute approach differs from that of many other organizations, including the federal government, because its science education awards are made at an institutional level and not to individuals. As a result, the institute encourages science faculty and administrators at colleges and universities to work together to develop common educational goals -- something they might not do otherwise. Hughes Institute grants can allow an institution to try new and untested ideas that could not be readily implemented without the HHMI funds.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.