Getting to Know a Few of the New HHMI Professors

Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently announced another large round of science education grants. In this case, the newest generation of HHMI Professors were crowned, and each given $1 million for their own unique approaches to shaking up science higher education.   

HHMI is perhaps best known for the HHMI Investigators, its individual-focused biomedical research program that gives esteemed professors tremendous latitude to go nuts in their chosen fields. But they also give a lot to science education, and the HHMI Professors program is sort of the teaching version of the Investigators. The funder gives five-year, $1 million grants and lifetime membership to the HHMI Professors club to leading scientists who are also renowned educations, to build on their unique approaches to classroom instruction.

Fifteen such scientist-educators were awarded at the end of June, all certainly doing impressive work. But we thought we’d take a closer look at just a handful, to get a sense of the work they do, both in the lab and the classroom, and what HHMI tends to reward:

Christopher D. Impey, University of Arizona: Impey is an astronomer studying distant galaxies and black holes. He uses radio and x-ray techniques and has worked with the Hubble Space Telescope, to make several contributions in the study of galaxies outside our own, specifically phenomena like black holes and quasars that we see at their centers. 

As a teacher, Impey specializes in non-science majors, but also the public at large. He uses a wide variety of methods, including a highly trafficked astronomy website and even virtual environments like Second Life. He’s currently teaching an online course with 14,000 students enrolled.

Tracy L. Johnson, UCLA: Johnson’s research deals in biochemistry and cell biology, specifically studying how cells synthesize, splice and process RNA to regulate gene expression. As a teacher, she works to create transformative experiences for undergraduates, but in upper-level courses. She is known for teaching a difficult upper-division molecular biology course that nonetheless enrolls around 300 students. Despite its size, the material is made approachable through multimedia and a highly personalized approach, inviting extensive student involvement and analysis of data. 

The only woman of color among this round of awardees, Johnson has also received recognition for her teaching of outstanding students from underrepresented minority groups. Students she's mentored have gone on to great success and cite Johnson’s influence as a major factor. 

Jeffrey S. Moore, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Moore’s research is in chemistry and materials science, combining synthetic and physical organic chemistry with engineering. One breakthrough he's known for is the development of self-healing polymer composite that seals up cracks as they grow in a structure over time. 

He’s taught organic chemistry at the university for 14 years, for which he’s won multiple awards, prioritizing real world problem-solving skills as opposed to strictly organic chemistry content. Moore has also done away with traditional lectures, instead offering them online so that class time can be spent directly working on problems with him and his assistants. 

Anne J. McNeil, University of Michigan: McNeil works in chemistry, with an interest in how molecular structure affects the properties of a solid material. She specializes in polymers and gels and developing new methods to synthesize them, with potential applications like solar energy and disease detection. 

One of McNeil’s notable teaching accomplishments is the development of a project in which students edit science content on Wikipedia, both improving student understanding of material, while improving public understanding of scientific concepts. It started out for grad students, but has been adapted for college freshmen as well. 

Read about all of the awardees here, and more IP coverage below. 

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