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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Motivating scientists: NMSU College of Arts and Sciences program receives $1.9 million grant

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute program at New Mexico State University is one of only 37 in the country to receive a five-year grant in the 2014-2019 competition. NMSU beat the odds among 170 universities that applied for funding this year. The awards were announced Thursday, May 29.

Man speaking to a group
Ralph Preszler, principal investigator and program director of NMSU’s Howard Hughes Medical institute program spoke about the program’s efforts to broaden science education during an NMSU research rally. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The NMSU program has been funded by HHMI since 2006.
“Our grant was renewed in part due to the demonstrated success of students in biology courses that have been revised with previous support from HHMI and due to the achievements of alumni of our Research Scholars Program,” said Ralph Preszler, principal investigator and program director of NMSU’s program. “Both of these achievements are a testament to the dedication of our faculty to helping students be successful in science.”

The $1.9 million grant for NMSU’s HHMI program in the College of Arts and Sciences will provide support through 2019 for three related programs: enhancement of NMSU biology courses that includes the use of research cases and undergraduate peer facilitators; the development of a series of authentic research courses in biology for sophomores; and continued support of junior and senior undergraduate research opportunities for students studying the biological sciences across many departments at the university.

“The NMSU HHMI Program will develop a pipeline that will transfer concepts and practices from faculty research programs to research courses and to introductory biology lecture and laboratory courses,” Preszler said. “The direct benefit of millions of dollars from HHMI across three awards to NMSU is small compared to the indirect economic benefits of producing high school and university graduates in New Mexico who are more scientifically literate, and who have more developed critical-thinking skills that will allow them to succeed in a variety of professions in the 21st century.”

A 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology argues the need for a million more college graduates in Science, Technology Engineering or Math (STEM) fields over the next ten years. However, the report goes on to say fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.

By introducing research into biology courses, providing support in and out of the classroom through peer instructors and peer advisors and by supporting students who participate in research projects, Preszler hopes to motivate more NMSU students, including those who belong to underrepresented groups, to pursue a degree in STEM fields and to increase the number of those who attain degrees in STEM.

“At a time when grant funding across the country is shrinking, this $1.9 million award is proof that Dr. Preszler and his team have developed a competitive approach in helping students to thrive in STEM fields,” said Christa Slaton, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “For more than eight years, NMSU’s HHMI program has opened the door to research for students across the state and I am proud that our faculty’s hard work is being recognized by the Hughes organization with an additional five years of support.”

The potential for NMSU students is unlimited according to Preszler, who has stayed in contact with 95 percent of NMSU’s HHMI undergraduate research alumni and found nearly three quarters of them have gone on to STEM-related professions or graduate school. Twenty-one percent of NMSU’s HHMI’s Research Scholars alumni are working in STEM-related positions; 15 percent are in medical, dental or veterinary school; seven percent are in other professional programs associated with medicine; and 31 percent are in graduate schools including UCLA, Harvard and Yale.

“The nation will need many more well-trained and creative scientists in the coming decades to meet many societal challenges such as the application of genomics to personalized medicine, and the application of concepts from the biological sciences to the challenges associated with global change,” said Preszler. “We have an opportunity to produce more scientists, and to produce a more creative and diverse scientific community, by increasing the persistence of NMSU undergraduates in science majors.”