UC Berkeley News


Jasper Rine named million-dollar professor by Hughes Institute
He's now obliged - and eager - to craft a biology curriculum that integrates undergraduate research and experimentation. Coming soon: Bio 1A at the Greek?

| 13 April 2006

Most professors designing a new class are lucky to have access to a shared copier and a bit of technical assistance.

Jasper Rine has a million dollars.

Jasper Rine disdains "cookbook experiments" in the lab, which, he says, encourage students to adjust the experiment to fit the result. (Jane Scherr photo)

This windfall comes with a title (Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor) and, for Rine, the obligation over the next four years to create a class that will introduce Berkeley undergraduates to the modern world of experimental biology.

"The typical professor has no money to do anything, and it shows," says Rine, a professor of molecular and cell biology who does research on gene regulation. "This money gives me the chance to show what you can do with resources that are not limited, when you can hire people to help you get past the development stage."

The four-year professorship is one of 20 awarded on April 5 by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to support innovative research scientists who want to incorporate the excitement of research into undergraduate education. The institute awarded $20 million to the first group of professors in 2000.

Rine's ambitious goal is to remake the hands-on laboratory portion of the introductory biology course, Bio 1A, taken each year by as many as 1,250 undergraduates. Bio 1A is one of the hurdles faced by freshman pre-meds and a requirement for entree to all other biology courses; it is taken at some point in their undergraduate career by nearly a third of all Berkeley students.

Rine recalls his own experience as an undergraduate at a "large and undistinguished state institution, where lab courses were to be endured. It wasn't until I chose to enroll in a summer research program at the University of Utah that I saw what research was really about. And it wasn't the stuff I learned in class."

Laboratory courses, where students conduct experiments that reinforce what they learn in lecture, have improved a lot since the 1970s, he says, "but I want to try to change the very effective but traditional lab course into a more modern course."

By modern, Rine says, he means a course that requires more than memorization of facts - one that imparts a true understanding of the discovery process of science, where conclusions are based on evidence.
That means more experiments that engage students by relating to the real world, and where students work through the scientific process to discover something, not just get the right answer.

"Most of the content tends these days to be cookbook experiments, where everyone knows the answer and students tweak the experiment to get the right answer. That's not how science is done."

Inspired by his own field of genetics, Rine plans one experiment where each student sequences a part of his or her own DNA - the DNA in the mitochondria, which is passed down through the mother - and combines this with ethnicity for a class-wide comparison. They then can integrate these data with data about mitochondrial DNA distributions around the globe, learning not only about their personal genetic information but also about inter-relationships among peoples worldwide.

"This brings in professional-level science, but also lets students experience the political and sociological issues around genetics that may seem scary," he says.

With his funds, Rine also plans to hire Ph.D. scientists to help develop new lab exercises that incorporate disciplines other than biology, including mathematics, computing, chemistry, and statistics, which Rine says are key to analyzing experiments today. Many of the experiments, he hopes, will be inspired by the research of Berkeley faculty in these departments.

He also plans to bring in high-school teachers and interested undergraduates to help develop the laboratory modules, and to work with graduate-student teaching assistants to implement and critique them. These modules will be integrated with current experiments to create an overhauled curriculum that, he hopes, will survive for a decade or more and be adaptable to universities around the country.

The challenge, he notes, is that experiments for a class of 20 are a lot easier to design than experiments for 1,000.

"That's real industrial-strength teaching," he says. "I told HHMI that I didn't know how to do what I want to do, and we will make a lot of mistakes."

If he succeeds, he says, he hopes to convince the campus that all Berkeley undergrads - some 4,000 a year - should take introductory biology because of its signal importance to society, which must keep informed about everything from stem-cell research and gene therapy to our disappearing plants and animals.

"I look forward to teaching Bio 1A in the Greek Theatre," says Rine.