Catch the Wave

At IGSP, Undergrads Find Fast Track to Success in Early, Open-Ended Research Experiences.

When recent Duke graduate and A.B. Duke Scholar Nick Altemose ’11 spoke to The Chronicle after learning he had won a prestigious Marshall Scholarship that would send him straight from Duke to the University of Oxford for two years of graduate study, he gave the credit first and foremost to his research mentor and “to all the professors who took care to give attention to undergraduates.”

Nick did work as an undergraduate that you might sooner expect of an advanced graduate student. He spent four years in IGSP Director Hunt Willard‘s lab, studying little-known portions of the genome that had been left out of the Human Genome Project – what Altemose describes as a “final frontier of the human genome.” For his trouble, Altemose earned not only the Marshall Scholarship, but also a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship in science, mathematics and engineering and a Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which will support his pursuit of a doctoral degree after he finishes up in Oxford.

Nick’s story and his research accomplishments are exemplary by any standard, yet he didn’t come to campus with any research experience under his belt. He is also just one of many students who have found their way almost from the start of their college careers into one IGSP research group or another, making the interdisciplinary institute a kind of intellectual “home base” and springboard for launching them in the direction of their choosing.

Successful Launch

“I think we’ve had amazing success if you look at the career paths of the students who have come through,” says Bob Cook-Deegan, Director of Genome Ethics, Law & Policy in the IGSP. “It’s our Focus program, it’s the research, the certificate program – there is a whole series of things the IGSP offers, and they all fit together to give students experiences as undergraduates that make them really attractive to graduate schools, law schools and medical schools. They’re on these spectacular post-Duke career paths that I think are tightly tethered to the fact that they were here in the IGSP.”

“I think we’ve had amazing success if you look at the career paths of the students who have come through.”
—Bob Cook-Deegan

Willard doesn’t take credit for inventing that special brew himself. Rather, he says the IGSP undergraduate program and its core elements are largely modeled on his own experience as an undergraduate, when he spent nearly three years working in a research lab on totally open-ended questions. His goal from some of the IGSP’s earliest days has been to get undergraduate students engaged and into the “breaking waves of current research” as early as possible in their time at Duke, leaving them plenty of time for authentic research experiences with all the exhilarating possibilities and uncertainties that come with them. “I had to craft my own experience back then, but I wanted to develop a program here that would encourage students to jump into multi-year, open-ended research projects and to take ownership of those projects right from the start.” That kind of ownership and long-term engagement has historically been a feature of graduate education. “It’s worked for a hundred years in doctoral programs, so, it’s an idea overdue to be tried with younger minds. They can get more out of their college experience and then will make fabulous graduate students themselves.”

That program led to Willard being named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor in 2006, allowing him to focus expressly on ways to foster an interest in ongoing research experiences in the genome sciences among undergraduates and to encourage them to consider pursuing a PhD after finishing their undergraduate degree at Duke.

“We’ve been very fortunate in attracting some really terrific students,” Willard says. “Some know ahead of time that they love science and the possibility of research; but others are pre-meds who catch the research bug only once they are given a chance.”

The results? Of now nearly 60 students who have participated in multiple aspects of the program since it began, almost half have gone on to advanced study involving research in genetics, genomics or related biomedical science. “This yield is spectacular by national norms,” Willard adds. “Our students have ended up in doctoral programs, either PhD or MD/PhD, at some of the best universities around.”

An Early Focus

For many, like Altemose, the entry point has been to enroll in the fall of freshman year in the IGSP’s Focus program, one of about a dozen interdisciplinary seminar clusters designed to nurture first-year Duke students’ intellectual curiosity. But that’s just where they get their intellectual feet wet. The Genome Focus Program serves as a kind of “feeder” to get students interested in joining a research lab during the semester and to apply for a spot in the IGSP’s Summer Research Fellowship Program, which brings undergraduates from Duke and elsewhere – almost all of whom are freshmen or sophomores – into IGSP labs full-time for 10 weeks each summer.

An impressive number of Duke summer fellows find ways to continue in research throughout their undergraduate careers at Duke through additional fellowships, independent study or work-study arrangements. They frequently write their work up in the form of senior honors theses or professional journal publications.

Since 2008, the most dedicated students have also been able to pursue their interests through the Genome Sciences & Policy Certificate Program. The interdisciplinary equivalent of an academic minor, the certificate requirements include a combination of interdisciplinary coursework and research experiences. The program culminates in a capstone course in which students take on real clients, many of them based in Washington, D.C., to complete projects at the intersection of genome sciences and policy. This semester, a record 15 seniors are focusing on issues related to genome technologies in health care, including noninvasive fetal genetic testing and direct-to-consumer genome testing.

Open Door Policy

In some of the earliest plans for the IGSP, education took a backseat to research, Willard has noted. Whether part of the original plan or not, Cook-Deegan says he is sometimes still amazed himself at the remarkably important place that undergraduates and undergraduate education hold in the maturing institute and in his role as director of genome ethics, law and policy.

Still, it is a reality that is now well appreciated by those positioned in other parts of the university. “I think we’ve always known there could be a role for undergraduates in all parts of the IGSP,” said Alex Rosenberg, Chair of Philosophy and Director of the A.B. Duke Scholarship program, who has made a habit of introducing some of the very best students to IGSP labs and research.

Nick Altemose is an example of one of those students, he said, as is this year’s Duke Marshall Scholar Daphne Ezer, who conducted computational biology research in the lab of Alex Hartemink. “These are people who, from beginning of their undergraduate careers, have taken on the opportunities in research labs that the IGSP offers,” Rosenberg said. “These are opportunities that Duke provides undergraduates that I suspect do not exist in similar programs elsewhere in the country, partly because ever since Hunt began running the IGSP, he was interested in the undergraduate education dimension of this whole place. For me, it’s just been pushing against an open door and finding ways to encourage undergraduates to get involved.”

If this year’s bumper crop of certificate students is any indication, there will be plenty more to come.

“Looking at the number of students enrolled in our certificate program and where we are in the field of genomics, we will continue to blossom,” says Susanne Haga, a long time IGSP faculty member who was recently appointed Director of Education in the IGSP. She says a goal for the future is to expand the IGSP undergraduate pool to include a greater number of non-science majors.

Thinking more broadly, Willard has said he would like to see the development of similar academic tracks aimed to students all across campus. “There is an opportunity to extend what we’ve learned at the IGSP for engaging faculty and students to create a range of coherent and creative four-year intellectual pathways, not just in the sciences but across various disciplinary and interdisciplinary initiatives.”


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