Howard Hughes Medical Institute: Grants for STEM Higher Education

OVERVIEW: The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) provides millions of dollars in funding for medical research, but it also supports scientific research activities and programs that are  designed to encourage future generations of scientists. These efforts aim to improve STEM education and make careers in science and technology more attractive.

IP TAKE: Despite the name, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's research interests are not limited to medical research activities. Improving undergraduate instruction and student persistence in STEM disciplines is part of its agenda as well. If you're out to make STEM more engaging, get in touch with HHMI.

PROFILE: HHMI should not be overlooked by organizations seeking science and STEM grants that are not related to medical research. The institute is a huge funder of medical research, but it also awards millions in science and STEM grants to universities and colleges around the country.  

The institute’s STEM-related grantmaking is subdivided into three key areas: undergraduate programs, graduate programs, and physician-scientist training, and has five key priorities: Building Authentic Research Experiences, Creating Competency-Based Curricula, Preparing K-12 Teachers to Teach Inquiry-Based Science, Apprentice-Based Research Experiences, and Fostering Diversity in Science.

HHMI's higher education science and STEM grants typically range from $800,000 to $1.5 million; however, it has awarded as much as $2.5 million to research universities for programs to improve undergraduate science education. HHMI awards the majority of its grants towards a number of targeted, specific programs at colleges and universities around the nation.

HHMI’s funding for undergrads works in large part to “train educators to teach science more effectively and allow undergraduate students from diverse populations to experience authentic research early in their academic careers.” Authentic, experience-based learning is a key issue for HHMI, which views it as critical to capturing and maintaining students’ interest in working in STEM-related fields.  Initiatives geared towards undergraduate faculty support professors developing new educational models, attracting and retaining underrepresented groups (such as first-generation college enrollees as well as students from low-income backgrounds), opportunities for students to experience “true scientific discovery as early as possible in their academic careers,” and interdisciplinary initiatives that connect the teaching of science with other subject areas such as the humanities.   

HHMI support is also available for undergraduate students themselves. HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities program gives exceptional students from disadvantaged backgrounds a $5,00 award in addition to the opportunity to work “10 weeks of full-time research in the lab of an HHMI scientist,” “Participation in a local summer research program with other undergraduate researchers,” and “Long-distance travel and housing” in order to “attend two meetings at HHMI’s headquarters in Chevy Chase, MD, to present their research in a poster session.” The Janelia Undergraduate Scholars program offers a similar opportunity, but the net is cast more widely and not focused directly on underrepresented or low-income students.

At the graduate level, HHMI is also highly engaged, with numerous grants aimed to “support graduate and postdoctoral science education, with an emphasis on bridging disciplines and creating opportunities for students from diverse populations to persist through the highest levels of academic science.” Continuing along those lines, HHMI has demonstrated a vested interest in nurturing the growth of early-career graduates through some of its Graduate Programs as well as the Medical Research Fellows Program, the latter of which “gives medical, veterinary, and dental students a chance to focus on a research project full-time and determine how they can incorporate research into their professional careers.”

HHMI is also a major funder of research in the field of biomedicine.  Its Biomedical Research Program is designed to “give our scientists the time and freedom to pursue difficult, long-range questions.” As with its funding for STEM education, a major emphasis here is on “creativity, collaboration, and interdisciplinary thinking,” and funding is available for research projects as well as (again) development of scientists in the early stages of their careers.

Even before students reach the postsecondary level, HHMI has also established K-12 preparation and study as an important priority.  This it does through grants that support experience-based and inquiry based learning opportunities, as well as programs designed to attract undergraduate scientists to the K-12 teaching field.

A few additional current and former science and STEM grantmaking favorites at HHMI are the Apprentice-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (which offers a more effective manner to help engage students in science and encourage them to pursue a career in STEM disciplines, the Persistence of All Students program that encourages college students with science and STEM majors to continue their education until they have completed their degree programs, and its Creating Competency-Based Curricula program, which aims to "create and share effective models for teaching interdisciplinary science, including new courses and ways of assessing how well they work." HHMI has also partnered with colleges to replicate the Meyerhoff model (to boost the number of underrepresented groups in the upper ranks of math and science) and supported the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland - Baltimore Campus.

In 2006 the institute also started its own campus, Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia, which focuses on neuroscience and imaging. At Janiela, “Group leaders...lead small research teams working together to address some of science’s most challenging problems” in a wide range of areas that includes neuroscience, evolution and genetics, and theory and computational science, just to name a few. The campus also offers graduate research fellowships for Ph.D. students.

While HHMI states that it is uncommon to fund unsolicited grant proposals, it does maintain an Open Competitions list that is well worth reviewing for upcoming opportunities.  For interested organizations, a good place to start is by reviewing HHMI’s past programs in addition to its current work and its Science Education News updates. Once you have identified a potential program, be sure to also confirm your eligibility by reviewing that specific program’s FAQ’s link, usually found on the right-hand side of the page for that particular program (under the heading Eligibility or Downloads).