CU-Boulder to Receive $1.8 Million for Undergraduate Research Opportunities

Published: May 20, 2010

The thought of a run-of-the-mill science course entailing lectures, note taking and textbook experiments is enough for some students to look for another field of study. Fortunately, the learning environment for many undergraduate science majors at the University of Colorado at Boulder far exceeds typical classroom activities and allows students to work in the lab side-by-side with faculty.

The real-world research opportunities are possible in part through grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, or HHMI. The organization today announced a new $1.8 million grant being awarded to CU-Boulder. CU-Boulder's Biological Sciences Initiative, or BSI, will administer the funding to further support undergraduate science education and K-12 science outreach.

BSI-supported programs such as the Bioscience Undergraduate Research Skills and Training Program, or BURST, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, or UROP, and the National Institutes of Health/HHMI Scholars Program for Diversity in the Biosciences have been springboards for five previous HHMI grants. The sixth grant announced today brings the total amount awarded to CU-Boulder's BSI to $11.5 million since 1989. Through BSI, students also can receive travel grants to attend research conferences and meetings.

Tara O'Brien, a recent CU-Boulder graduate with a bachelor's degree in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, was enrolled in BURST and then UROP. The opportunities allowed O'Brien to conduct research in the lab of Distinguished Professor Norman Pace. O'Brien identified and quantified bacterial pathogens in the airway of adolescent patients using samples provided by The Children's Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus. O'Brien's research will lead to new and better therapies to treat cystic fibrosis and other pathogenic diseases.

"Not only was I learning from my research project and contributing to the science community, but the BURST and UROP programs provided me a job, mentors and skills in grant writing," said O'Brien. "I even got to present a poster at a conference and found that my research sparked a lot of interest.

"I am now looking into graduate studies, which I never would have considered before getting to work with Dr. Pace and other leaders in the field."

BSI offers opportunities for more than 60 undergraduates each year to do research in faculty labs, and workshops for more than 250 teachers annually to get up to date on cutting-edge research and learn lab activities to take back to their K-12 classrooms.

With the latest HHMI funding, BSI plans to continue its undergraduate research and outreach programs and to offer new interdisciplinary courses on topics ranging from microbiomes -- interactions of microorganisms with their environments -- to vaccine development.

"The common denominator of the university's BSI programs is providing access to the tremendously exciting scientific enterprise here at CU-Boulder," said Julie Graf, director of BSI.

CU-Boulder is one of 50 U.S. universities to receive this round of HHMI grants from a pool of 197 schools invited to apply.

HHMI also recognizes professors who are committed to innovative undergraduate science teaching concepts and creativity in the classroom -- an honor bestowed on Leslie Leinwand, a professor in CU-Boulder's molecular, cellular and developmental biology department, in 2006. Leinwand started the Python Project, in which students studied the snake's ability to increase heart size by up to 60 percent and speed metabolism by 40-fold after swallowing prey.

HHMI plays a powerful role in advancing scientific research and education in the United States. Its scientists, located across the country and around the world, have made important discoveries that advance both human health and our fundamental understanding of biology. The institute also aims to transform science education into a creative, interdisciplinary endeavor that reflects the excitement of real research, according to HHMI administrators.

For more information on BSI visit For more information on the new HHMI grants visit

CU-Boulder student Sara Smedra (left) of the Bioscience Undergraduate Research Skills and Training Program, or BURST, and graduate student Megan Wemmer (right) work together on research conducted in the lab of Associate Professor Gregory Odorizzi. The lab studies protein transport. (Photo courtesy of the Biological Sciences Initiative)