Biology department chair Daniel Kiehart had his first exposure to research as a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. Through sheer persistence, he “wore down” an initially reluctant lab director, he says, and got himself hired.
One of the student progenitors of Duke’s Project Search, Anthony Lee ’10, was a student in Kiehart’s class and approached him about a pre-orientation lab experience for freshmen. Kiehart was instantly enthusiastic.
The original notion was to distribute the pSearchers through a number of labs.“In a short period of time, students don’t get enough out of that. They just get started and it’s done,” Kiehart says. “It would be more exciting to get the students in one place where, with good mentoring, they would be able to do something new and different for them and sufficiently controlled so we could be fairly certain it would work.”
As a two-week lab immersion, pSearch feeds into the larger interest, according to Kiehart, of rethinking how science is presented. “Many students come to Duke expecting to be science majors. But there’s a high attrition rate here and at other universities.” Some students find out that they’re not cut out to be scientists. Others are simply bored by introductory science classes, which “tend to rehash what they already had in high school,” he says. “They may get more problems to solve and learn at a higher level, but they get little in terms of totally new concepts.”
Beginning this fall, the biology department is replacing its survey course—“a humongous smorgasbord meant to cover all of biology,” in Kiehart’s words. Students will instead be introduced to biology through two “gateway courses,” one focusing on molecular biology and the other on genetics and evolution. The new courses, says Kiehart, will provide a firm grounding in the grand concepts that have come to define biology.