Whitman College will receive an $800,000 grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, HHMI President Thomas Cech announced today. The award is part of a national program by the institute to enhance undergraduate instruction and research in the life sciences.

“Now 48 of the nation’s best undergraduate institutions will receive $60 million to help them usher in a new era of science education,” said Cech. 

“This is an exciting opportunity to build on Whitman's existing strength in the sciences,” said Provost and Dean of the Faculty Lori Bettison-Varga. “To be included in this group of colleges is a mark of distinction, and it provides resources for our creative team of faculty to expand undergraduate research experiences in the life sciences and educational outreach to the community.”

The Whitman grant was coordinated and chiefly written by Jim Russo, associate professor of chemistry. “The overarching purpose of our proposal was to continue to strengthen the life sciences, with a particular focus on the interdisciplinary biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology (BBMB) program and, specifically, its connection to chemistry,” Russo said. 

The grant will fund four principal areas in Whitman’s life sciences, enabling the college to:

  • expand student-faculty collaborative research on campus and through Whitman’s association with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, where Whitman students are selected for summer research projects.
  • create a new faculty line in bioanalytical chemistry and allow current faculty to teach special courses in “the biology-chemistry interface.”
  • renovate the BBMB laboratory.
  • expand outreach partnerships with middle- and high-school science programs and teachers in Walla Walla Valley.

The new award is Whitman’s third success with HHMI. A joint grant to the biology and chemistry departments in 1989 bolstered student research and equipment. Another award in 1996 ushered in the biophysics division and provided new computers for the biology and physics labs.  

“We have a unique interdisciplinary science program in BBMB,” said Russo. “We’re incorporating at the undergraduate level science that historically has been done at the graduate level. The Hughes grant will enhance our program by expanding research opportunities as well as course opportunities.”

Colleges in 21 states and Puerto Rico will receive funding from HHMI. “The undergraduate years are vital to attracting and retaining students who will be the future of science,” said Cech. “We want students to experience science as the creative, challenging and rewarding endeavor that it is.”
“We want to help create successful models for teaching science that can spread throughout the higher education community,” added Peter J. Bruns, HHMI’s vice president for grants and special programs.

The 2008 grant winners were selected through a stringent review of 192 applications by a group of distinguished scientists and educators. HHMI invited 224 colleges — all with a track record of preparing undergraduate students for research careers — to submit proposals.

“One of the key aspects of the Hughes program is its recognition of the interdisciplinary roles that chemistry, physics and biology play in that picture,” said Russo. “The grant has a very broad reach, which is exciting for all of us in the life sciences.”

HHMI, headquartered in Chevy Chase, Md., is the nation’s largest private supporter of science education. The institute has invested more than $1.2 billion in grants to reinvigorate life science education at research universities and liberal arts colleges.

Andrea Dobson ’82, associate professor of astronomy and general studies and a Garrett fellow, spearheaded the outreach component of Whitman’s grant application. Rachna Sinnott ’93, director of foundation and corporate relations, and Tamara Tinhoff, director of donor communications and relations, contributed background writing for the institutional component.

For a list of all grant recipients and a description of their programs, visit the HHMI Web site.


Keith Raether
Office of Communications
Whitman College