Educating the Next Generation of Scientific Leaders

Alan Saltiel, Mary Sue Coleman Director of the Life Sciences Institute

Do LSI faculty members teach or just do research? I get this question a lot and the answer is:  Yes! The essence of an LSI laboratory and the hallmark of a University of Michigan education is the opportunity to learn by working alongside some of the world’s experts on the most important problems of our time. Right now there are 74 undergraduates, 99 graduate students and 55 post-doctoral fellows training at the LSI. From the time we opened in 2003, 45 students who did their research at LSI have received PhDs. Upon joining our laboratories these students and fellows are at once immersed in both the high level questions, and the day-to-day experiments that must be precisely executed to answer them. Our research tools may be high-tech, but the education occurs at the bench in an old-fashioned, one-on-one way.

In addition to laboratory training, LSI also runs some novel educational enterprises, like the cross-disciplinary graduate course “The Business of Biology”, and the course on research that LSI faculty member Steve Weiss teaches for MDs-in-training. During the summer, LSI labs are opened to undergraduate students studying at any college or university in the state who compete successfully for one of our Perrigo fellowships. And, in addition to all the laboratory and clinical teaching we do, LSI faculty teach courses in their home departments, just like their counterparts in the schools and colleges.

Why, how and for what do we prepare these students? We train them in the technical aspects of research, teaching them techniques in molecular and cellular biology, best laboratory practices, reading and writing scientific papers, quantitative assessments and analysis, and a host of other areas that leave them able to tackle the important questions they are likely to face in the world of research. And we do this in collaborative fashion. Since few of us are technical experts in every area of biomedical research, we encourage students to consult with other faculty and their laboratories to make sure that they have considered every possible approach. Although some are also engaging with students in how to develop new technologies, most of us focus on teaching how to use the latest and most appropriate tools.

While there is no doubt that we spend a great deal of effort ensuring that our students are up to date when it comes to technology, this is only a small part of their overall training. Most of our effort involves teaching not the answers, but the questions. By the time they leave us, we hope that our students understand how to channel their enthusiasm and curiosity into identifying where the gaps are in our knowledge of the natural world; which of these gaps are holding us back the most, and why; and how and when to interact with other like-minded scientists to close these gaps, to advance our knowledge and then to exploit these advances.

Success in science requires many different attributes, including curiosity, judgment, alertness, compassion, stamina, decisiveness, and a sense of humor, all traits that our faculty try to model for their students. Funny, these are also traits of great leaders, and leadership is what great science is all about.

I guess that’s how we’re educating the next generation of scientists, to be the leaders and the best.