News this Week

Science  06 Jul 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5834, pp. 26

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    Supersized Lab Draws Fire at NIH's Environmental Institute

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser*
    1. With reporting by Marissa Cevallos.

    The director of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) environmental health institute has landed in hot water over the management of his personal lab. David Schwartz, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) since May 2005, broke ethics rules, according to memos obtained by Congress, when he brought in “guest researchers” from his former employer, Duke University. The problem, along with overspending, led NIH to take the highly unusual step this spring of barring Schwartz from his own lab for about 3 months and sending about a dozen researchers back to Duke. The case raises questions about what limits NIH should apply to labs run by high-ranking officials.

    The “de-Duking” process, as one NIH official described it in an e-mail, is one of several issues involving the NIEHS chief brought to light by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) last week. The senator also took Schwartz to task for earning about $150,000 as an expert witness in asbestos lawsuits while he was NIEHS director, despite advice from NIH ethics officials that he drop this work. These and lesser ethics problems are detailed in an 8-page, 21 June letter from Grassley to NIH director Elias Zerhouni.

    Schwartz and NIH officials say misunderstandings underlie many of these problems. “I think it's clear that Dr. Schwartz did not understand the rules,” says NIH deputy director Raynard Kington, referring to the lab staffing.

    Schwartz, a pulmonologist specializing in environmental lung diseases, is known for discovering the role genetic variation plays in responses to inhaled endotoxins. At Duke's medical center, he was head of a department, had six research grants, and ran a lab with more than 30 people, he says. The terms of his appointment as chief of the $642 million NIEHS included a lab with 16 staff members. Because he retained a faculty position at Duke, he also agreed to recuse himself from matters involving the university.

    Negotiations for the transfer of the Schwartz lab to NIH followed the usual process for incoming directors, says Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director of intramural research. The new lab was placed under the authority of another institute to provide independent oversight. Several directors now have labs, from “very small to moderate size” of a dozen people or so, Gottesman says (see table, below).

    Balancing act.

    NIEHS director David Schwartz, like other NIH institute chiefs, juggles administrative duties and leads a research group. Schwartz's lab was trimmed after he violated agency guidelines.

    View this table:

    Although Schwartz's lab fell scientifically within the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), it was administered by NIEHS because NIEHS is in North Carolina, far from NIH's main campus in Bethesda, Maryland. Kington says this resulted in a lack of “checks and balances” when Schwartz began asking for waivers to bring in more of his Duke staff. “I thought it was reasonable to allow them to continue to train with me,” Schwartz says, adding that although his 26-member lab was “large,” he felt it “was not impeding my ability to direct the institute.”

    But after a senior NIEHS official raised questions, NIH concluded that not all of the guest appointments were covered by Schwartz's waivers, Kington says. Kington also learned that Schwartz had exceeded his lab budget of $1.8 million by more than $4 million, which Kington attributes to a mistaken assumption that his group would not be charged for using NIEHS core facilities. To make “a clean break,” Kington says, Schwartz resigned as head of his lab in February, while NIH appointed an NHLBI staffer to administer the lab and moved all 12 or so guest researchers back to Duke.

    There were consequences for the guests, some of whom had been at NIEHS as long as 18 months, Schwartz says. At least two fellows had to shut down mouse experiments, according to an NIEHS scientist who asked not to be identified. Schwartz says that “it was disruptive in lots of ways,” but that the trainees have found other labs and are “progressing.”

    The letter from Grassley also questions Schwartz's work as an expert witness on asbestos cases for law firms. Kington says this involved clinical evaluations that Schwartz had done before he came to NIEHS. Although “many at the agency had grave concerns about the activities,” they felt they “could not force” Schwartz to stop, Kington says. Schwartz has discontinued the law-firm work.

    This is not Schwartz's first brush with controversy. One of his first proposals at NIEHS was to privatize the institute's journal, Environmental Health Perspectives. He backed off after environmental groups and many scientists protested. Two senior scientists within NIEHS offer a mixed assessment. People may find Schwartz's style aggressive, but “he's really pushing us” in a good way, one says, adding that he hopes the ethics revelations won't lead to Schwartz's departure. Meanwhile, Grassley has asked NIH for more documents—including information on similar conflicts, if any, involving other directors—by 10 July.


    Sea Anemone Provides a New View of Animal Evolution

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi
    More than one way to do it.

    In addition to shedding light on evolution, the newly sequenced genome will help clarify how this sea anemone reproduces sexually, releasing eggs (right), and asexually, developing a second head, then cleaving across the middle of the body (left).


    Genome sequencers have just jumped down to a lower branch on the tree of life, and the view has given them a new perspective on animal evolution. The newly decoded DNA of a few-centimeter-tall sea anemone looks surprisingly similar to our own, a team led by Nicholas Putnam and Daniel Rokhsar from the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California, reports on page 86. This implies that even very ancient genomes were quite complex and contained most of the genes necessary to build today's most sophisticated multicellular creatures.

    “The work is truly stunning for its deep evolutionary implications,” says Billie Swalla, an evolutionary developmental biologist at the University of Washington, Seattle. Until now, researchers have relied heavily on the sequenced genomes of the fruit fly, nematode, and that of a few other invertebrates to understand genome evolution leading up to the vertebrates. But the new work drives home how streamlined these invertebrate genomes have become. In contrast, the sea anemone's genome “has not changed much and retains many of the features present in our last common ancestor,” says Jacek Majewski, a geneticist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. It “seems to fill the niche essential to answer many evolutionary questions.”

    Animals divide into two groups, sponges and eumetazoans. The eumetazoans consist of comb jellies, cnidarians such as anemones, and bilaterians, which include everything else: limpets, lions, lobsters, and us. Comb jellies and cnidarians branched off before bilaterians diversified into the variety of animal groups known today, and they are considered relatively “simple” organisms. Cnidarians, for example, have a mouth but no anus; two tissue layers, not three; a nerve net, but no central nervous system per se.

    Biologists have had plenty of bilaterian genomes to work with. But to look back in time, they needed a nonbilaterian genome for comparison—genes and genome features common to both bilaterians and nonbilaterians likely existed in their common ancestor 750 million years ago. In late 2004, Putnam, Rokhsar, and their colleagues began deciphering the 450-million-base genome of the cnidarian of choice, the starlet sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis.

    The draft genome is already producing many surprises. Among the anemone's 18,000 or so protein-coding genes, the researchers have identified 7766 that are also present in bilaterians. Those shared genes represent the knowable part of the ancestral gene set. Three-quarters of the genes turn up in all three major animal groups examined, humans among them, but 1292 have been lost in the fruit fly and the nematode.

    One of the big surprises of the anemone genome, says Swalla, is the discovery of blocks of DNA that have the same complement of genes as in the human genome. Individual genes may have swapped places, but often they have remained linked together despite hundreds of millions of years of evolution along separate paths, Putnam, Rokhsar, and their colleagues report. Researchers see little conservation of gene linkages in nematodes and fruit flies.

    Moreover, the anemone genes look vertebratelike. They often are full of noncoding regions called introns, which are much less common in nematodes and fruit flies than in vertebrates. And more than 80% of the anemone introns are in the same places in humans, suggesting that they probably existed in the common ancestor. “The work presents a missing piece of the puzzle, which people studying intron evolution have been searching for in the past few years,” says Majewski. “They present a strong validation for an intron-rich ancestor,” he says.

    When they compared the anemone genome with those of fungi, plants, and protists, which include slime molds and ciliates, the researchers determined that 1500—20%—of the ancestral genes originated after animals diverged from plants and fungi. Some genes appear to be completely new. Others, including ones for cell-adhesion proteins and signaling molecules, are combinations of new sequences and much more ancient DNA or combinations of parts of ancient genes. These novel genes set the stage for the evolution of highly organized tissues, notably nerves and muscles, subsequently seen in bilaterians, says co-author John Finnerty of Boston University.

    Finnerty and his graduate student James Sullivan also looked in the anemone genome for 283 human genes involved in a wide range of diseases. They will report in the July issue of Genome that they found 226. Moreover, in a few cases, such as the breast cancer gene BRCA2, the anemone's version is more similar to the human's than to the fruit fly's or to the nematode's.

    All these results go to show, says Finnerty, that “Nematostella's genome may provide more insights into the functional evolution of human genes than many far more closely related animals.”


    Another Global Warming Icon Comes Under Attack

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Climate scientists are used to skeptics taking potshots at their favorite line of evidence for global warming. It comes with the territory. But now a group of mainstream atmospheric scientists is disputing a rising icon of global warming, and researchers are giving some ground.

    The challenge to one part of the latest climate assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “is not a question of whether the Earth is warming or whether it will continue to warm” under human influence, says atmospheric scientist Robert Charlson of the University of Washington, Seattle, one of three authors of a commentary published online last week in Nature Reports: Climate Change.

    Instead, he and his co-authors argue that the simulation by 14 different climate models of the warming in the 20th century is not the reassuring success IPCC claims it to be. Future warming could be much worse than that modeling suggests, they say, or even more moderate. IPCC authors concede the group has a point, but they say their report—if you look in the right places—reflects the uncertainty the critics are pointing out.

    Twentieth-century simulations would seem like a straightforward test of climate models. In the run-up to the IPCC climate science report released last February (Science, 9 February, p. 754), 14 groups ran their models under 20th-century conditions of rising greenhouse gases. As a group, the models did rather well (see figure). A narrow range of simulated warmings (purple band) falls right on the actual warming (black line) and distinctly above simulations run under conditions free of human influence (blue band).

    Not so certain.

    The uncertainty range in the modeled warming (red bar) is only half the uncertainty range (orange) of human influences.


    But the group of three atmospheric scientists—Charlson; Stephen Schwartz of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York; and Henning Rodhe of Stockholm University, Sweden—says the close match between models and the actual warming is deceptive. The match “conveys a lot more confidence [in the models] than can be supported in actuality,” says Schwartz.

    To prove their point, the commentary authors note the range of the simulated warmings, that is, the width of the purple band. The range is only half as large as they would expect it to be, they say, considering the large range of uncertainty in the factors driving climate change in the simulations. Greenhouse-gas changes are well known, they note, but not so the counteracting cooling of pollutant hazes, called aerosols. Aerosols cool the planet by reflecting away sunlight and increasing the reflectivity of clouds. Somehow, the three researchers say, modelers failed to draw on all the uncertainty inherent in aerosols so that the 20th-century simulations look more certain than they should.

    Modeler Jeffrey Kiehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, reached the same conclusion by a different route. In an unpublished but widely circulated analysis, he plotted the combined effect of greenhouse gases and aerosols used in each of 11 models versus how responsive each model was to a given amount of greenhouse gases. The latter factor, called climate sensitivity, varies from model to model. He found that the more sensitive a model was, the stronger the aerosol cooling that drove the model. The net result of having greater sensitivity compensated by a greater aerosol effect was to narrow the apparent range of uncertainty, as Schwartz and his colleagues note.

    “I don't want certain interests to claim that modelers are dishonest,” says Kiehl. “That's not what's going on. Given the range of uncertainty, they are trying to get the best fit [to observations] with their model.” That's simply a useful step toward using a model for predicting future warming.

    IPCC modelers say they never meant to suggest they have a better handle on uncertainty than they do. They don't agree on how aerosols came to narrow the apparent range of uncertainty, but they do agree that 20th-century simulations are not IPCC's best measure of uncertainty. “I'm quite pleased with how we're treating the uncertainties,” says Gabriele Hegerl of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, one of two coordinating lead authors on the relevant IPCC chapter, “but it's difficult to communicate” how they arrived at their best uncertainty estimates.

    Hegerl points out that numerical and graphical error ranges in the IPCC report that are attached to the warming predicted for 2100 are more on the order expected by Schwartz and his colleagues. Those error bars are based on “a much more complete analysis of uncertainty” than the success of 20th-century simulations, she notes. It would seem, as noted previously (Science, 8 June, p. 1412), IPCC could improve its communication of climate science.


    Science Gets New Home in U.K. Government

    1. Daniel Clery

    Science appears to have a more prominent role in the British government after the cabinet reshuffle that followed last week's handover of power from Prime Minister Tony Blair to his successor Gordon Brown. One of Brown's first acts was to create a new ministry whose responsibility includes both research and higher education. “The government's long-term vision [is] to make Britain one of the best places in the world for science, research, and innovation,” Brown said in a statement. Researchers have cautiously welcomed the new arrangement. “The challenge for John Denham, the new minister, will now be to ensure that the department has a strong voice at the cabinet table,” says cosmologist Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society.

    The United Kingdom's science budget had been managed by the Department for Trade and Industry, and higher education, by the Department for Education and Skills. But their coming together in a new Department for Innovation, Universities, and Skills (DIUS) is causing concern because a single department is now responsible for both arms of the “dual support” funding system—competitive grants provided by the research councils and direct funding to university science departments. “John Denham is going to have to ensure that the two halves remain distinct and that both sustain high levels of funding,” says Peter Cotgreave of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

    Alarm bells have recently been ringing over a decline in the number of students opting to study science at university (see p. 68 and Science, 4 February 2005, p. 668). The DIUS “will have to have strong links with [the new] Department for Children, Schools, and Families in order to ensure that young people are choosing to study science and engineering at a higher level,” Cotgreave says.

    And researchers have one other beef with the plan for DIUS: “We would have preferred the word 'science' to appear in the title,” says Rees.


    A Road Map for European Facilities

    1. Daniel Clery

    The youthful field of astroparticle physics—the study of the universe via the cosmic rays, gamma rays, gravity waves, and neutrinos that rain down on Earth—has a growing appetite for infrastructure funding. Last week, a body representing astroparticle physicists across Europe released the first draft of a wish list of facilities. “We're trying to decide which large infrastructures can be funded in the next 10 years,” says Stavros Katsanevas of France's National Institute for Nuclear and Particle Physics.

    Into the deep.

    Seabed neutrino telescopes like ANTARES (pictured) are part of the plan.


    Physicists studying these high-energy visitors from space use a wide range of techniques—vast caverns filled with water to detect neutrinos, arrays of telescopes to spot the flash of light when a high-energy gamma ray hits the upper atmosphere, and interferometers with arms several kilometers long to sense gravity waves. In 2001, six European funding agencies formed the Astroparticle Physics European Coordination (ApPEC) to pool their efforts in the field. A committee was set up 3 years ago to develop a road map and this effort was joined in 2006 by a new European Union (E.U.)-funded astroparticle physics network called ASPERA.

    The road map committee divided the field into seven themes, including dark-matter searches, charged cosmic-ray detectors, and neutrino experiments, and asked researchers to propose facilities. Through town meetings and dialogue with researchers, the committee came up with its highest priority projects for each theme. “We covered practically every project in Europe or with European participation,” says committee chair Christian Spiering of DESY, Germany's particle physics lab. Although the committee declares that all the highest ranked projects are needed, ApPEC pushed four to the front of the line for E.U. funding: a new telescope array for gamma rays, a dark matter detector, an underground detector for neutrino astronomy and proton decay, and a next-generation gravity wave interferometer.

    ASPERA coordinator Katsanevas says this sort of consensus-building exercise is essential in Europe, where there are 17 national funding agencies with interests in astroparticle physics. Working groups for each theme will now refine the draft road-map proposals with milestones and budgets and consider how they might tie in with similar efforts in the United States or Japan. At present, the total cost of the seven projects proposed (€1.2 billion) would be roughly twice the funding currently available in Europe for astroparticle physics.

    European astroparticle physicists have largely welcomed the road map. “The community has been brought together more than ever before,” says John Carr, spokesperson for the ANTARES Collaboration, which is constructing a neutrino telescope on the seabed off France's Mediterranean coast.


    Egypt Plans a Shakeup of Research Programs

    1. Robert Koenig
    New deal.

    Egypt's prime minister Ahmed Nazif will head a new council on science and technology, affecting research centers such as the one in Mubarak City (below).


    A bloated science bureaucracy and a flawed grant-awarding system have long hampered Egyptian research, with critics complaining that too little of the science budget trickles down to productive scientists. In an effort to recharge that system, Egypt's government is moving to create a research-funding agency, hike the science budget, and bolster political backing for science.

    “We must have an effective mechanism for distributing research funds on a competitive basis,” Egypt's science minister, engineer Hany Helal, told Science. The current system needs to be overhauled, he says, because innovation is lagging. At his urging, the nation's Cabinet recently approved a science restructuring plan and is awaiting a presidential decree to give it the force of law. “From the president on down, we are committed to increasing science and technology [S&T] spending and strengthening Egyptian science,” Helal says.

    Similar promises have been made before, but Egypt's S&T spending, as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen to 0.2%—well below the 1% average for developing countries. And although Egypt has the most extensive research structure in the Arab world in terms of research and development units, it ranks near the bottom among Arab countries in expenditures per scientist. Despite Egypt's traditional strengths in chemistry and engineering research, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization surveys indicate that the nation's share of the world's scientific publications has fallen over the last decade to about 0.3%, down from 0.4% in 1991, and its level of registered patents has been low. Helal says part of the new plan's goal is to jump-start innovation, for which he “wants to see more competition and more groups of researchers from different institutions or universities who apply jointly for grants.”

    Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, a former computer engineering professor at Cairo University, said in a statement that he will push for Egypt to devote more of its budget to research, perhaps 10 times the current rate. He added that “restructuring the scientific research sector is one of the government's main priorities.” Nazif will have an important role in the revamped system, chairing a new 18-member S&T council—modeled on a similar panel in Japan—which will include six scientists, eight Cabinet members with research portfolios, as well as representatives of industry and finance. Aly El-Shafei, a University of Cairo engineering professor who led the team that critiqued Egypt's S&T system, says “we need strong political support” to improve science. The new council will develop a plan to push S&T and increase spending, which Helal says should reach 1% of the GDP “in the short term” and would later increase beyond that.

    El-Shafei says the team found “significant problems in the administration of S&T in Egypt,” including excessive bureaucracy and favoritism, that could be addressed by the creation of a new funding agency with an emphasis on competitive grants. Other critics contend that too much of the science budget now goes to salaries and overhead costs at government research centers and not enough to merit-based grants.

    The planned restructuring would transfer most grant-giving functions of Egypt's massive Academy of Scientific Research and Technology to the new granting agency, which will be called the Egyptian National Funding Agency. Helal says the academy “will study important topics and produce reports, but its future role will not be in funding research.” The academy's acting president, agronomy professor Mohsen Shoukry—who was among the off icials who took part in the restructuring talks—told Science that he supports the proposal for a new funding agency. He said the details of the academy's restructuring “are still under discussion.”

    Partly because the government has not publicized the plans, Egyptian scientists are taking a wait-and-see attitude. But many would be pleased if reform means better support. “We would like to see more funding getting to the scientists who do research,” says physicist Amr Shaarawi, an associate dean for research at The American University in Cairo. He says a typical Egyptian grant tends to be “very low”—a few thousand dollars. For that reason, many university-based researchers rely on international research grants from Europe, North America, and the Arab S&T Foundation.

    The lone Egyptian-born science Nobel laureate, physical chemist Ahmed H. Zewail (Nobel prizewinner for chemistry, 1999) of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, called the Egyptian plan “a positive step forward,” but added that more changes are needed. “You can't do creative science in an environment of excessive bureaucracy,” he said. Zewail, who has spoken with Egypt's president about the need for science reforms, suggested several years ago that Egypt create a high-level council to promote science and also a “meritbased” funding agency, modeled in part on America's National Science Foundation.

    Science minister Helal, whose portfolio includes higher education, says his ministry is also developing “a very ambitious plan for Egypt's universities” that will include numerous reforms. He is moving at the same time to expand Egypt's international scientific collaborations. Helal thinks the presidential decree that will set in motion the science restructuring could come as soon as this month.


    NASA Lab Workers Decry New Security Checks

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
    Tightening up.

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory employees will soon need new identification badges to work there.


    Aerospace engineer Dennis Byrnes prefers the open work environment at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, to a former job with a defense contractor that required a high-level security clearance. But a new rule requiring federal contractors to undergo an extensive background check before receiving an identification badge has given Byrnes an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. “I came to JPL to get away from the culture of secrecy,” he says. “Now I feel like I'm back in it.”

    The new rule, which stems from a 2004 directive issued by President George W. Bush to improve security at federal facilities, requires workers to provide their fingerprints and give the government permission to collect information about their past from “schools, residential management agents, employers, criminal justice agencies, retail business establishments, or other sources of information.” Federal workers have been required to do this for years; the president's directive extends the requirement to contractors working at federal facilities.

    JPL is managed by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, but its infrastructure is owned by NASA—unlike many Department of Energy labs, which are owned by their contractors. “All of our property is federal property, and the president's directive says individuals working on federal property must undergo the same background checks that have been required of civil servants,” says Veronica McGregor, a JPL spokesperson. Under that interpretation, most of the lab's 11,000 workers are affected, and NASA administrator Michael Griffin has made it clear that they have no choice. “If you do not want to surrender the information to allow your background to be checked … then you cannot work within the federal system,” Griffin told JPL employees during a 4 June visit.

    That message hasn't gone down well among some JPL employees. “Signing this form amounts to inviting the government to go on an open fishing expedition,” says planetary scientist Robert Nelson. One employee of 39 years, technical writer Susan Foster, submitted her resignation after learning of the new policy this spring. Rumblings of protest have also arisen at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which has a large number of contractors.

    Nelson and three JPL colleagues have complained to two former physicists now in Congress, Representatives Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) and Rush Holt (D-NJ), that the new requirement could hurt the federal government's ability to hire the “very best scientific and engineering talent to address our nation's complex technical needs.” Holt says the directive is being implemented in a way that undermines “the open and free environment” required for doing science. “There is a real possibility that this rule will discourage scientists from working with the federal government,” adds an aide of Holt's. On 21 May, Holt wrote to the Commerce Department, which developed a common standard for the new identification badges, asking the agency to rethink how the directive should be implemented. Commerce has yet to respond.

    JPL's McGregor says anyone who objects to the policy “should work that through the court system.” Byrnes and his colleagues say they are ready to hire a lawyer and sue the government. Meanwhile, JPL officials expect every employee to have new IDs before the 27 October deadline.


    Racing to Capture Darkness

    1. Adrian Cho,
    2. Richard Stone

    Their gravity holds galaxies together. Their identity has fueled decades of theoretical speculation. Now particle physicist are vying to drag dark-matter particles into the light

    Unseen clouds.

    Astronomers can infer where dark matter lies in space, but nobody knows what it is.


    YANGYANG, SOUTH KOREA, AND BATAVIA, ILLINOIS—Deep inside Korea's Jeombong Mountain, in a vault suffused with an eldritch red glow, a giant black cube begins to unfold. One thick, lead-lined wall filled with mineral oil, along with the box's base, inches away from the rest of the structure to reveal a smaller cube of shimmering copper. A young man steps up and pulls a chain, hand over hand, and gradually, amid the clatter of steel, the face of the copper cube rises. The rarest of coins or the relics of a saint might be accorded such sanctity, but here, in an anteroom to a tunnel delved for a hydropower station in northeastern Korea, the treasure is precious only to a particle physicist. Inside the copper cube are a dozen blocks of crystalline cesium iodide, doped with thallium and wired with electronics that will register the tiniest scintilla of light produced inside the crystals. Researchers are making a few final tweaks to their crystal array before sealing it up again and beginning an otherworldly quest.

    The 15 centimeters of gamma ray-blocking lead and neutron-quenching oil in the black cube, the 10 centimeters of copper that absorb x-rays from the lead, the nitrogen piped into the copper box, the red light, and the 700 meters of rock between the chamber and the outdoors all have a singular purpose: to minimize the number of spurious flashes inside the crystals. Here at the Korea Invisible Mass Search (KIMS) experiment, researchers are hoping to be the first to spot what no one—indisputably—has seen before: particles of dark matter.

    After years of preparation, physicist Kim Sun Kee of Seoul National University and his KIMS colleagues began taking data here last month with a 100-kilogram array of crystals. Each day they hope to record one or two instances of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs)—prime candidates for dark matter—tickling cesium and iodine nuclei in a way that liberates a flash of light. That's assuming dark particles tangle with ordinary particles as many models predict. “If they don't interact with matter, we have no hope to find them,” says Kim.

    The KIMS experiment is one of a few dozen experiments racing to detect dark-matter particles. Like Kim's team, groups in several countries are engaged in so-called direct searches, striving to spot the particles jostling ordinary atomic nuclei. Others are turning to the skies in indirect searches that seek signs of dark-matter particles annihilating one another in the hearts of galaxies. Meanwhile, the world's most powerful atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland, could make dark matter as soon as it turns on next spring.

    “This is the epoch in which the central theoretical predictions are finally being probed,” says Blas Cabrera of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who for a decade has stalked dark matter as the co-spokesperson of the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) project. “The best guess is within reach.” That prospect thrills researchers. At a recent workshop* at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, more than half the 170 attendees wagered that dark-matter particles will be detected within 5 years.

    Discovery is not guaranteed. The favored theoretical models suggest that experimenters should soon have dark matter in their grasp, but others predict the ghostly particles will be so elusive that researchers can never hope to snare them. It's a make-or-break situation, predicts Rocky Kolb, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois: “Either in 5 years we will know what dark matter is, or we will never know.”

    The WIMP miracle

    Astronomers first sensed dark matter's shadowy presence more than 70 years ago. In 1933, Fritz Zwicky of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena calculated that the Coma Cluster of galaxies contains too little visible matter to hold itself together. Some unseen matter must supply the extra gravity that keeps the galaxies from flying into space, he reasoned. That maverick idea gained credence about 4 decades later when astronomers found that individual galaxies also lack enough luminous matter to hold on to their stars, suggesting that each galaxy is embedded in a vast clump, or “halo,” of dark matter.

    Evidence continues to mount. In 2003, researchers with NASA's orbiting Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) measured the big bang's afterglow—the cosmic microwave background—the temperature of which varies ever so slightly across the sky (Science, 14 February 2003, p. 991). The pattern of hot and cold spots reveals much about how the universe evolved, and researchers found they could explain the observed pattern if the universe consists of 5% ordinary matter, 22% dark matter, and 73% weird space-stretching “dark energy,” all interacting through gravity.

    Researchers have never captured a speck of dark matter, however. Like a cosmic Cheshire Cat, the stuff hides in plain sight, presumably floating through our galaxy and the solar system and showing only its gravity as its grin. That coyness vexes physicists, who assume that dark matter must consist of particles. “This is the best evidence we have of new physics,” says Jonathan Feng, a theorist at the University of California, Irvine. “It's simply a fact that there is dark matter, and we don't know what it is.” Theorists have dreamed up dozens of possibilities. Dark matter could be particles that would exist if space has minuscule extra dimensions. Or it could be particles called axions that have been hypothesized to patch a conceptual hole in the theory of the strong force that binds the nucleus.

    Most promising may be the idea that dark matter consists of particles predicted by supersymmetry, a theoretical scheme that pairs every known particle with a heavier, undiscovered superpartner. The lightest superpartner, expected to be a few hundred times as massive as a proton, could be the long-sought WIMP. And if it interacts with ordinary matter as anticipated, then a simple calculation shows that roughly the right amount of WIMPy dark matter should remain from the big bang. That uncanny coincidence, or “WIMP miracle,” suggests that supersymmetry is more than another stab in the dark, Feng says.

    Darkest desires.CREDIT: MUTSUMI STONE

    Kim Sun Kee hopes his cesium iodide array will register one or two WIMPs a day.

    Detecting is believing

    The proof is in the particles. The most obvious way to find them is to catch them bumping into ordinary matter, and the KIMS experiment joins more than a dozen experiments that are hunting for collisions with ever greater sensitivity—including one that claimed a signal. Spotting dark matter is easier said than done, however. The particles should interact with ordinary matter even more feebly than do neutrinos, which can zip through Earth unimpeded. Researchers must also shield detectors from cosmic rays and other ordinary particles so that they may perceive the soft cries of dark particles amid the din of ordinary collisions.

    In the race to capture darkness, the frontrunner for the past few years has been an experiment called CDMS, which runs in the Soudan Mine in northern Minnesota. Its 5-kilogram “cryogenic” detector consists of stacks of germanium and silicon wafers cooled to within a fraction of a degree of absolute zero. If a WIMP crashes into a nucleus, it should knock loose several electrons and produce a tiny pulse of heat. Analyzing both the charge and heat signals, researchers can look for dark-matter particles and weed out neutrons and other red herrings.

    Now, another experiment has taken the lead in sensitivity. The XENON10 experiment, which resides in a tunnel in Gran Sasso, Italy, consists of a tank filled with 15 kilograms of liquid xenon. When pinged by a WIMP, a xenon nucleus should rebound through the liquid to produce a flash of light and knock free a handful of electrons. In April, the XENON10 team, led by Elena Aprile of Columbia University, reported that it had searched with five times the sensitivity of CDMS—and found nothing.

    To go head to head with such efforts, the KIMS team had to start from scratch. A decade ago, Korea did not have a particle physics facility. “We always had to go abroad for research and training,” says Kim, who cut his teeth at Japan's KEK accelerator laboratory in Tsukuba in the 1980s. When South Korea's science ministry launched a Creative Research Initiative in 1997, Kim, with colleagues Kim Hong Joo of Kyungpook National University in Daegu, South Korea, and Kim Yeong Duk of Sejong University in Seoul, pounced. Thrice the trio of Kims submitted their aptly named KIMS proposal, and thrice they failed. Finally, in 2000, they opted for a novel cesium iodide detector—and got funded. They caught a second break when during construction of the Yangyang Pumped Storage Power Plant, a small section off one tunnel caved in, and plant officials were amenable to hosting the experiment. “We were very lucky,” says Kim Sun Kee. The collapse “opened up just enough space for the experiment.”

    Since then, the most arduous task has been to develop a detector largely free of trace radioactive isotopes. The KIMS team has also spent 3 years studying the scintillation signals of gamma rays and stray cosmic rays, which cause chain reactions in the atmosphere that give rise to a background “noise” of hurtling neutrons. “The neutron signal is very similar to what we expect a WIMP signal to look like,” Kim explains, so the experimenters must find ways to screen it out. So far they have reduced it by 99.999%, he says.

    KIMS won't immediately rival CDMS and XENON10 for overall sensitivity. But KIMS will excel in one important regard: If the WIMP-nucleus interaction depends on how each particle spins, KIMS will have a better chance of seeing the effect. “That makes KIMS complementary with CDMS and XENON10,” Kim says.

    KIMS can also test one of the more spectacular recent claims in physics. In 1997 and again in 2000, researchers with the Italian DAMA experiment at Gran Sasso reported evidence of WIMPs in a 100-kilogram array of sodium iodide crystals (Science, 3 March 2000, p. 1570). The team found that the rate of flashes went up and down with the seasons. That would make sense if the galaxy turns inside a cloud of WIMPs so that the solar system faces a steady WIMP wind. As Earth circles the sun, it would alternately rush into and away from the wind, causing the collision rate to rise and fall.

    No other experiment has reproduced the DAMA signal, however, and most physicists dismiss the sighting. Because KIMS employs a similar detector array—with cesium iodide instead of sodium iodide—many experts say it can provide an unambiguous test of the DAMA results. DAMA group leader Rita Bernabei, a physicist at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, disagrees. “No direct comparison will be possible,” she argues, because cesium iodide is less sensitive to low-mass dark-matter particles than DAMA's detectors were. In 2003, Bernabei's group fired up an upgraded 250-kilogram detector called DAMA/LIBRA. Its initial findings are due to be released next year.

    The competition among dark-matter experiments is heating up. The CDMS team has already collected enough data to retake the sensitivity lead this summer. Meanwhile, researchers in North America, Europe, and Asia are deploying or planning a gaggle of ever more ambitious detectors, including XMASS, an 800-kilogram spherical liquid xenon detector that won funding this year and will be built in Kamioka, Japan. “For the first time, the direct detection experiments are moving into a regime where theorists would say that a priori you would expect to see something,” says Lawrence Krauss, a theorist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

    Other ways to skin a cat

    Meanwhile, astronomers are searching for signs of dark-matter particles in the heavens. When two WIMPs in a galactic halo collide, theory says they can annihilate each other to produce high-energy gamma ray photons or other ordinary particles. The emerging generation of gamma ray “telescopes” should be well-suited to search for such signs. Since 2004, the European-funded High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) in Namibia, Africa, has used its four detectors to look for light created when a gamma ray smashes into the atmosphere and triggers an avalanche of particles. Similarly, the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) at the base of Mount Hopkins in Arizona began taking data earlier this year. “The gamma ray observations are really the only way to measure the halo distribution and tie this all together,” says James Buckley, an astronomer at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who works on VERITAS.

    Too bright?CREDIT: H.E.S.S.

    HESS's maps of gamma rays at the center of the Milky Way may leave clues to dark matter lost in the glare.

    HESS has already mapped the gamma ray glow coming from the heart of our Milky Way galaxy, the most obvious place to look for dark matter. Unfortunately, those gamma rays come overwhelmingly from more mundane sources, such as hot gas. So researchers may have to turn away from the central glare and look at so-called dwarf spheroidal galaxies that orbit our galaxy. Those galaxies should come into fuller view when NASA's Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) blasts into orbit, perhaps as early as this winter.

    Dark-matter annihilations would produce other particles, too. The Russian-Italian satellite PAMELA is looking for antiprotons and other antiparticles born in the process. And IceCube, an array of 4200 light sensors being lowered into the South Pole ice, could spot neutrinos from annihilations in the sun. Zipping along with tremendous energy, measured in billions of electron volts or GeV, a few would interact with the ice to create flashes of light. A stream of 100 GeV neutrinos coming out of the sun would be a sure sign of dark matter huddling there, says Francis Halzen, a physicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “How else do you get a 100 GeV neutrino out of the sun?”

    Before researchers find dark-matter particles, they may be able to manufacture them. The European LHC will smash protons together at energies seven times greater than any previous collisions, recreating, in billions of tiny explosions, conditions that haven't existed since the big bang. If superpartners exist, the LHC should crank them out by the thousands, says Alex Tumanov of Rice University in Houston, Texas, who works on an LHC particle detector. “Most of these models predict that we will find or exclude the dark matter particles within 1 or 2 years,” he says. “That's why everyone is so excited. We're on the doorstep.”

    Even if the LHC spews out new particles, however, it might not reveal enough about them to nail down which of the many versions of supersymmetry nature plays by, says Michael Schmitt of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. That would require another collider that could study particles in greater detail: the proposed 40-kilometer-long International Linear Collider.

    Putting it all together

    Ultimately, all three methods—direct detectors, telescopes, and colliders—may have to strike pay dirt before scientists can say what dark matter is. “It's really going to require that we detect the particles in our galaxy and produce them in the lab, and that we convince ourselves that they are the same thing,” says Edward Baltz, a theorist at Stanford University. In the race to spot dark matter, he says, “You don't win until everybody finishes.”

    Of course, the efforts may not come together so harmoniously. Direct searches might spot particles so massive that the LHC can't generate them. Or, in spite of the “WIMP miracle,” dark matter might turn out to comprise several different types of particles. Researchers also face a psychological challenge if they do see something. “The first thing that you would say would be, 'Is this real?'” says Daniel Akerib, a CDMS team member from Case Western. “The first thing we would have to do is to try to make it go away” and prove it was a spurious signal, he says. That could be tricky, as it would require checking every conceivable way an ordinary particle might mimic a WIMP.

    Still, that's a problem most researchers, including Kim Sun Kee, would love to have. Kim hopes that within a year, his team members will have accumulated enough data in their Korean crypt to reveal a convincing WIMP signal. The form of a WIMP behind that Cheshire grin is another question. “We don't know what a WIMP will look like,” says Kim. They may soon find out—and solve one of the bigger mysteries in physics.

    • *The Hunt for Dark Matter: A Symposium on Collider, Direct, and Indirect Searches, 10-12 May


    The Dark and Mushy Side of A Frozen Continent

    1. Mason Inman*
    1. Mason Inman is a freelance journalist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    Researchers are uncovering a wetter world under the Antarctic ice than they ever imagined. But it's far from clear which life forms call this extreme environment home

    BIG SKY, MONTANA—Wetlands might seem incongruous in Antarctica's frozen wastes. But recent expeditions have uncovered a hidden landscape of lakes, marshes, and apparent rivers sandwiched between ice and rock. These vast wetlands, imprisoned under the ice, may even be teeming with life.

    “There's water everywhere under there,” says John Priscu, a microbiologist at Montana State University in Bozeman. At a meeting* here last month, Priscu and other experts compared notes on the latest tantalizing clues to what this unparalleled and largely unplumbed world might be like—and laid plans for exploring it.

    The first big plunge is likely to occur in Lake Vostok, the largest of Antarctica's 150-and-counting hidden lakes. A Russian-led team is preparing to penetrate and sample Vostok in 2009. The operation may help settle a point of sharp scientific dispute: whether the Connecticut-sized lake, overlain by more than 3.5 kilometers of ice, harbors microbial life. “We never thought life could exist down there,” Priscu says. Now he's a believer. Other researchers are skeptics.

    Water, water everywhere.

    An artist's rendition of aquatic Antarctica.


    But experts concur that there's far more to Antarctica than meets the eye. “We're seeing a wide range of subglacial environments, from Lake Vostok to shallow, swampy environments,” says Peter Doran, an earth scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. For now, the startling wetlands are terra incognita. Robin Bell, a geophysicist at Columbia University, says, “we've got a long way to go” before comprehending what's going on under the ice.

    Peeking under the cover

    The revelations about Antarctica's soggy, pitch-black underbelly have come mainly from drilling campaigns and radar mapping over the past decade. Drills that have bottomed out below the ice sheet have often hit water or warm, soft ice.

    The ice blanketing the continent traps heat radiating up from Earth's core. That warmth, combined with intense pressure from the ice bearing down, allows water pockets under the sheet to keep their liquid form at normally freezing temperatures. All told, Antarctica's subglacial lakes contain around 10,000 cubic kilometers of water—about 10% of the fresh water in all the lakes elsewhere on Earth.

    Antarctica's frigid water world is more dynamic than expected. Two recent studies found that some smaller subglacial lakes can roam around—they burst their banks and fill lower-elevation depressions. These findings hint at the existence of transient rivers, some as large, perhaps, as England's Thames—and raise the stakes on attempts to tap into the lakes. “We have to take a watershed approach,” Doran says. If pollutants infiltrate a watershed, he says, “we may be contaminating things all the way downstream.”

    Although no subglacial lake has yet been pricked, researchers have drilled to within about 90 meters of Vostok's surface. Ice from this nether region is illuminating. When drilled down into from about 240 meters above the lake, the core changes from glacial ice, composed of compacted snow, to accretion ice, formed when Vostok water freezes to the ice sheet. Researchers have reported that accretion ice contains microbes that could be revived in the lab. Many scientists infer that these microbes were Vostok denizens, and other studies have shown that the microbes are close relatives of those found from Greenland to the Himalayas.

    There are other signs of vitality as well. The sole sediment core under the ice sheet tested so far for microbes is brimming with life. In 2004, Brian Lanoil of the University of California, Riverside, and colleagues found that sodden soil under the Kamb Ice Stream in West Antarctica contained 10 million cells per gram—comparable to that of lake sediments found in temperate regions, and similar to sediments found under glaciers in New Zealand and Norway.

    Glacial ice from the Vostok core is studded with modest numbers of microbes, around 100 cells per milliliter, according to studies led by Priscu and Brent Christner, a microbiologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. At the glacial-accretion ice transition, they reported last year in Limnology and Oceanography, the number rises to around 400 cells per milliliter. Accretion ice is also rich in organic carbon, Christner says. “This suggests that the lake is a source of both cells and organic carbon.”

    Other researchers think that the ice—and perhaps Vostok's waters—is largely sterile. Sergey Bulat, a molecular biologist at the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute (PNPI) in Russia, and his colleagues have also been probing the Vostok core for microbes and DNA. At the meeting, Bulat reported that his team often finds no cells in samples from both glacial and accretion ice, and never more than 20 cells per milliliter. (Bulat does put stock in one sign of life: His group has found that accretion ice contains DNA of bacteria similar to thermophilic species in vents on the ocean floor. Such microbes, he says, could be clinging to rocks around Vostok Lake and in lake sediments.)

    The discrepancy between the Russian and U.S. cell counts could be due to different sampling techniques, says microbial ecologist Warwick Vincent of Laval University in Quebec, Canada. Whereas Bulat's team uses flow cytometry, Priscu and Christner count cells under a light microscope or scanning electron microscope. Or, says Vincent, “it could be that there's a lot of heterogeneity in the ice core.” Others argue that Priscu and colleagues have been led astray by an artifact. To keep the Vostok borehole from freezing shut, it's filled with drilling fluid. The hydrocarbons are a feast for bacteria. Says Christner: “We can think of the borehole as a 65-ton enrichment culture.”

    Irina Alekhina and her colleagues at the PNPI found that some microbes in the drilling fluid match species that Christner and others have found inside cores from Vostok and from the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica—microbes that they argued were native to the ice. The primary bacteria in the drilling fluid were Sphingomonas species, known contaminants of jet fuel—like the drilling fluid, mostly kerosene. “There is no indication for indigenous microbes,” Alekhina concludes.

    Priscu rebuts this by pointing to a study in Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys in which his group found hydrocarbon-eating microbes. “The organisms are there in nature,” Priscu says. “Just because we see it in the drilling fluid doesn't mean it's not native.”

    That debate notwithstanding, it's a mystery how microbes can survive deep in the Vostok core, which near the bottom could be 1 million to 2 million years old. If the cells had remained frozen all that time, “their genomes would accumulate enough damage that they would effectively be dead,” Christner says. One microbial refuge might be the water channels between the ice crystals, says Buford Price, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. Christner and biophysicist James Raymond of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, are testing whether the microbes are specially adapted to the cold life. Raymond found that one Chryseobacterium species from the Vostok core produces a protein that, in the lab, blocks icecrystal growth. This suggests the bacteria are reshaping the ice around them to minimize damage, says Christner. The protein might work as antifreeze or as a seed for crystal formation to form an ice cocoon around the bacteria.

    “This debate will not be resolved until Lake Vostok is sampled directly,” says Vincent. When Russia breaks through, it will be like exploring a different planet. The drilling that has preceded this adventure has been “like putting pinholes in the continent,” Priscu says. “We don't know what's on the bottom of that ice sheet.” Well, we do know one thing: It's wet.

    • *Subglacial Antarctic Lake Environments, 6-8 June.


    Ancient DNA's Intrepid Explorer

    1. Andrew Curry*
    1. Andrew Curry is a freelance journalist in Berlin.

    After fending off bears, surviving frostbite, and trapping furs in Siberia, Eske Willerslev turned to genetics and is now pushing the boundaries of ancient DNA research

    Polar pause.

    Armed against polar bears, Eske Willerslev takes a break during an expedition last year in Greenland.


    COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—In the basement of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, Jørgen Steffensen pulls a puffy pale blue parka over his t-shirt and shorts and steps inside a storage locker cooled to a constant-26°. After digging through one of the hundreds of cardboard boxes stacked inside, the bearded climatologist lifts out a dirty, plastic-rapped cylinder of ice about 55 cm long.

    The frozen chunk was cut from the bottom of an ice core drilled through Greenland's ice cap in 1981 as part of a project to look at past climate. But this core bottom was considered too disturbed by the glacier above and too contaminated with silt and dirt from below to yield much information, says Steffensen. “I've taken care of this dirty, insignificant piece of ice for 26 years,” he yells as refrigeration units thunder overhead. “It was only during discussions with Eske that we homed in on a use for it.”

    Eske Willerslev, the director of the Centre for Ancient Genetics at the University of Copenhagen, has spent the past 8 years teasing information about the distant past from discarded ice and even less likely places. Since first extracting DNA from glacial ice in 1999, the 36-year-old biologist has pioneered what he calls “dirt DNA”—the extraction and cloning of plant and animal DNA from just a few grams of soil and ice. In 2003, he redefined ancient DNA research when he extracted the 300,000- to 400,000-year-old DNA of mammoths, bison, mosses, and much more from small samples of soil he collected from the Siberian permafrost (Science, 18 April 2003, p. 407). It was the oldest DNA ever discovered by more than 200,000 years.

    Not long after that, Willerslev began to wonder about the ignored ice core bottoms in the building his lab shared with Steffensen's climate research group. “I did the permafrost stuff, and then suddenly it hit me: Silty ice is icy permafrost, right?” Judiciously cutting and melting the core bottoms, Willerslev and his colleagues analyzed the resulting water for signs of DNA. What Willerslev found, and reports on page 111, broke his own record for the oldest DNA ever recovered, and promises to rewrite the history of Greenland's climate. His team identified and dated genetic sequences from coniferous trees, butterflies, beetles, and a variety of other boreal forest plants—traces of ancient forests that Willerslev says covered southern Greenland perhaps as far back as 800,000 years ago.

    The results have impressed his colleagues in the close-knit, highly competitive ancient DNA research community. “To go from dirty water to a forest full of insects is pretty amazing,” says Matthew Collins of the University of York in the U.K. “It's spectacular how far he appears to have gone back this time.”

    From fur-trapping to genetics Willerslev and his identical twin Rane grew up reading about Danish legends such as Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen and devouring Buddy Longway, a popular Belgian comic book that chronicled the adventures of a furclad American mountain man. “I always thought I was born 200 years too late,” Eske says. “Exploring America in the beginning would have fit me perfectly.”

    In 1991, the 19-year-old twins decided to spend their summer break in the Yakutia region of Siberia. “It was as close as you could get to unknown land,” says Rane, now an anthropologist at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. “There were times when we starved and had to eat seagulls. It was very exciting at the time.”

    The brothers returned three summers in a row, collecting ethnographic data and filming a movie on a Siberian tribe. In 1993, a shorthanded local asked Eske to spend the winter fur trapping. He readily agreed. Living like Buddy Longway “was a chance to fulfill my childhood dream,” says Willerslev.

    Digging deep.

    Eske Willerslev drills for permafrost samples in Siberia.


    Willerslev, who spoke almost no Russian, ended up in an isolated cabin with the hard-bitten native trapper and another Russian. “We had ammunition, traps, tea, and some bread. That's it,” he recalls. The team hunted moose for food, sometimes lugging home 50 kilos of meat through waist-deep snow. They were attacked by bears, and wolves picked off their hunting dogs. Willerslev once got lost alone. Only by building a fire and keeping it going all night did he manage to survive, escaping with frostbite on his face and testicles.

    By Christmas, the romance of life as a trapper had completely worn off for Willerslev. But coming back to school in Denmark wasn't easy. “I was mentally changed,” he says. “I tried to study for my genetics exams, but everything seemed very unimportant compared to daily survival.”

    Finding an ancient forest

    Yet Willerslev eventually began to see opportunities that would satisfy his adventurous spirit. “I find huge satisfaction in doing exploration on a mental level instead,” he says. “The 21st-century explorer is a scientist.”

    Interests in evolution, paleontology, and population migration soon led Willerslev to the fledgling ancient DNA field. Since no one in Copenhagen was working on ancient DNA, he improvised a self-guided course in polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques. He also began e-mailing with Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, a leader in the ancient DNA field. In 2004, he traveled to Oxford to work with another pioneer Alan Cooper.

    The possibilities of sequencing ancient DNA had led to an initial boom in the early 1990s. But wildly optimistic claims and Jurassic Park-type fishing expeditions nearly discredited the field. At issue was the tremendous vulnerability of ancient DNA techniques to contamination. PCR, the development that made ancient DNA analysis possible with its ability to copy DNA fragments in a sample many millions of times, is an indiscriminate multiplier. Any speck of DNA—from a single skin cell, say, or a single pollen grain floating in a window—would throw off an entire ancient sample with strands of modern DNA. “It's a field for which the first decade was a very faltering decade,” says York's Collins. “The new generation is trained to think about nothing else but ancient DNA and contamination.”

    As part of that generation, Willerslev has combined innovative techniques with exceptionally stringent measures to control contamination. Whereas the PCR primers that latch on to DNA strands are usually aimed at just one type of organism, for his 2003 permafrost work, Willerslev used primers to grab chloroplast DNA and mitochondrial DNA from a wide variety of plants and animals. This meant he had to be particularly careful about keeping modern DNA out of reagents and permafrost samples. Tests were run in independent labs to show the results could be reproduced. Using chemicals harsh enough to break open tough microbial spores without destroying already fragmented animal DNA was another challenge—one the team solved by beating the sediments with tiny beads. “We were not only applying existing techniques to new problems,” he says. “We had to combine different parts of different methods into a new protocol.”

    Willerslev has a reputation for being unusually intense. During a trip to Beijing, “I had to convince him to take half a day off to see the Forbidden City instead of working in a dark hotel room on papers the whole time,” says Michael Hofreiter, an ancient DNA specialist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. The intensity has paid off. Since returning to the University of Copenhagen in 2005—he was the youngest full professor at the university—he's built a 22-person lab from scratch.

    Willerslev's ancient DNA successes have implications for a wide range of fields, from climate change to ecology. For example, glacial ice older than about 60,000 years gets too compressed by the glacier's weight and movement to provide good climate data. “It doesn't bring doubt that we have older ice, we just can't directly count it,” says University of Copenhagen glacier expert Dorthe Dahl Jensen, a collaborator on Willerslev's latest research. Instead, climatologists have relied on models to argue that southern Greenland was free of ice—and open to plant growth—during the Eemian, or last interglacial period, some 130,000 to 116,000 years ago. The new results contradict that scenario: An ice-free Eemian in Greenland would have replaced the 450,000- to 800,000-year-old forest DNA Willerslev found in the bottom ice cores with younger plant and animal DNA. The survival of 450,000-year-old DNA suggests that the ice has been around much longer than previously thought. If southern Greenland remained ice-covered during the last interglacial period, it could mean global warming would have to get much worse before it completely melts away the Greenland ice sheet.

    And although scientists once assumed natural degradation prevented DNA older than 100,000 years from being readable, Willerslev's ice core work opens new doors. “This means we simply don't know how far we can go back,” says Hofreiter, a co-author of the new Science paper.

    Willerslev is already eyeing Antarctica, where ice temperatures that go down to -50°may have kept DNA preserved for even longer than Greenland's relatively balmy -20°C. “Ancient DNA hasn't peaked—in the next five years, you're going to see it going even further,” he says. In a forthcoming paper in Astrobiology, he even asks whether ancient DNA techniques could detect traces of life on other planets. It's typical, colleagues say, of Willerslev's knack for asking unexpected questions. “While I'm doing humble domestication research, he's asking about whether there's life on Mars,” says researcher Joachim Burger of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.

    Willerslev's passion for the lab hasn't entirely replaced his love for the great outdoors. He is due to be married on 4 August on an island with no bridges or roads in southern Sweden. “Even the priest has to take a canoe,” Willerslev says happily. “It's going to be fantastic.”


    In Hyperbolic Space, Size Matters

    1. Barry Cipra


    Mathematicians since the 19th century have explored the strange realm of hyperbolic geometry, in which parallel lines behave in ways that Euclid never imagined. And cosmologists have pondered its implications for the universe ever since Einstein introduced curved space in his general theory of relativity. Modern researchers have long known that among the peculiarities of hyperbolic geometry, there is a hyperbolic three-dimensional space, or 3-manifold, of least volume. They've even long had a candidate for the smallest hyperbolic space, a tiny snarl known as the Weeks manifold. What they didn't have was proof the theory couldn't cough up something smaller yet. Now they have that too.


    Students and colleagues of mathematician Bill Thurston (shown here in 1987) met to celebrate his 60th birthday.


    David Gabai of Princeton University, Robert Meyerhoff of Boston College, and Peter Milley of the University of Melbourne in Australia have shown that the Weeks manifold is indeed the smallest possible hyperbolic space. Their proof, presented here at a conference honoring the mathematician William Thurston, is part of a larger effort to understand the structure of small-volume hyperbolic 3-manifolds. Topologists would eventually like to have a list of these spaces. At least they are now sure of where to start.

    The concept of least volume is meaningless in ordinary Euclidean geometry, because any shape can be scaled to any size. But the curvature of hyperbolic geometry brings with it intrinsic units of length, area, and volume. For example, you can find the area of a hyperbolic triangle by adding up its angles and subtracting the sum from π (also known as 180°). In the 1970s, Thurston, now at Cornell University, proved a surprising property of hyperbolic manifolds: Given any infinite collection of such manifolds, one member of the collection will be of smallest volume. (By contrast, for example, there is no smallest positive real number.) In particular, the entire collection of all hyperbolic manifolds must have a smallest representative.

    Meyerhoff, then a graduate student of Thurston's at Princeton, found one example of a small manifold, with a volume of about 0.98136882. A few years later, Jeffrey Weeks, also a student of Thurston's, computed a smaller one, with a volume of approximately 0.94270736. “I was supposed to be working on something else,” Weeks recalls. Weeks, who is now an independent geometer in Canton, New York, went on to write a program for doing computations of hyperbolic manifolds. (The program, SnapPea, is available on Weeks's Web site at

    The Weeks manifold is based on the space around a pair of intertwined loops known as the Whitehead link. Links and knots, which can be physically modeled by taking a tangled string of Christmas lights (or just an extension cord) and plugging its two ends together, are a fruitful source of hyperbolic manifolds. They provided some of the first evidence for Thurston's far-reaching Geometrization Conjecture (see sidebar, below); Thurston himself proved the conjecture for manifolds arising this way.

    Weeks suspected that his manifold is the smallest, but he had no proof. “It was pure random chance and dumb luck,” he says. The initial efforts to prove its minimality, however, went unrewarded. For a long time, the best that was known was that the smallest volume had to be at least 0.001. Only in the past 10 years did Gabai and others begin to improve the bound, first to 0.166, then to 0.33, and, just 2 years ago, to 0.67. The final nail was pounded in a paper posted to the arXiv preprint server on 30 May (

    “It's pretty amazing,” says Colin Adams of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. “The proof uses a huge variety of different methods,” many of them brand-new, Adams notes. Gabai in particular “just doesn't quit until he gets it.”

    With the smallest hyperbolic manifold now known, what about the next smallest? Experts believe it's likely to be the one Meyerhoff found more than 25 years ago. But Meyerhoff says additional new ideas are needed to pin down the next manifold. Just getting the smallest volume put them right at the edge of what they could prove, he says: “We're really hanging on by our fingertips.”


    Pricey Proof Keeps Gaining Support

    1. Barry Cipra


    No report on advances in topology is complete these days without an update on Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman's proof of Thurston's Geometrization Conjecture and its million-dollar corollary, the Poincaré conjecture (Science, 22 December 2006, p. 1848). After poring over Perelman's papers for 4 years, topologists are confident of the result, says John Morgan of Columbia University, who gave an overview of the proof at the Thurston conference. Much of the confidence derives from alternative proofs researchers have devised in the wake of Perelman's work. Morgan and Gang Tian of Princeton University, for example, have written a book-length exposition that “goes as far as the Poincaré conjecture” and are currently “95% of the way through the details of the Geometrization Conjecture.”

    “I never doubted it would be proved,” Thurston said in remarks at a banquet in his honor. “It's really wonderful to see the community ownership of this mathematics.”


    Bizarre Pool Shots Spiral to Infinity

    1. Barry Cipra


    If a mathematician invites you to play billiards, watch out. You're likely to wind up trying to make shots on a table of some weird, polygonal shape—or even on the outside of such a table.

    The notion of “outer billiards” was proposed in the 1950s by Bernhard Neumann and popularized (among mathematicians and mathematically minded physicists) in the 1970s by Jürgen Moser as a stripped-down “toy” model of planetary motion. The setup is simple: An object starting at a point x0 outside some convex figure such as a polygon zips along a straight line just touching the figure to a new point x1 at the same distance from the point of contact (see figure). It then repeats this over and over, thereby orbiting the figure in, say, a clockwise fashion. Neumann asked whether such a trajectory could be unbounded; that is, whether the object could wind up landing progressively farther and farther from the central figure. This is analogous to the question of whether planetary orbits in the solar system are stable. All proven results, however, went the other way. For regular polygons, all trajectories are bounded, and for polygons whose vertices have rational coordinates, trajectories are not only bounded but also periodic: After a finite number of steps, each trajectory winds up back where it started.

    Outer limits.

    Billiard balls aimed around a Penrose kite (blue) will travel outward forever, if you pick the right starting point.


    Richard Schwartz of Brown University has given a positive answer to Neumann's question: There is indeed a convex figure with an unbounded trajectory—an infinite number of them, in fact. The example turns out to involve a famous shape, the Penrose kite, which Roger Penrose introduced in the 1970s as one of two pieces (the other is known as the Penrose dart) that produce nonperiodic tilings of the plane with local fivefold symmetry.

    Schwartz discovered the unbounded trajectory around the Penrose kite by writing a graphics program for systematically exploring trajectories around kites, which he picked as the simplest figures for which unbounded trajectories could possibly exist. “I think of myself as a good experimenter,” he says. “I tried lots of things that didn't work out!”

    A key to the discovery was that he computed not only individual trajectories but also entire regions consisting of equivalent trajectories. For the Penrose kite, he found three large, octagonal regions within which trajectories bounce periodically from one region to the other (see figure). Around these regions lies a cloud of smaller regions (color-coded red in figure) with similar trajectory behavior, and around these regions is a larger cloud of yet smaller regions, and so on. The larger and larger clouds of smaller and smaller regions, Schwarz found, converged to a set of points from which the trajectories are unbounded.

    Schwartz's initial proof was heavily computational. He has made much of it conceptual, but parts are still computer-assisted. (Schwartz's program, Billiard King, is available at his Web site, At the same time, he has found a general class of kites for which, with the help of the computer, he can show unbounded trajectories exist. “The work is very beautiful,” says Sergei Tabachnikov, a (mathematical) billiards expert at Pennsylvania State University in State College. “It is an elegant piece of programming and a deep insight into the complicated dynamical phenomena revealed by the experiments.” Schwartz, however, admits that the problem is still a puzzlement: “I don't completely understand what's going on.”


    That's Not Some Knot Sum!

    1. Barry Cipra


    Knot theory is full of simple-sounding questions that have resisted mathematicians' efforts to answer them for decades. One of the simplest has to do with the minimal number of times a knot has to cross itself when you draw it in two dimensions. In particular, if two knots are strung together to form one larger, more complicated knot (see figure), can the new knot be redrawn with fewer crossings than the original two knots combined?


    “This problem has been out there forever,” says knot theorist Colin Adams of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. “It's the most obvious question to ask.”

    Mathematicians think the answer is no, but the problem has remained stubbornly unsolved. Now, however, Marc Lackenby of Oxford University has taken a small step in the right direction. He has shown that the number of crossings cannot decrease by more than a constant factor—281, to be exact.

    Knot theorists denote the minimal crossing number of a knot K by the expression c(K). The trefoil knot, for example, can be drawn with just three crossings, whereas the figure-eight knot requires four. When knots K1 and K2 are strung together to form a knot sum, denoted K1#K2, the crossing number, c(K1#K2), is obviously no larger than c(K1) + c(K2). The conjecture is that c(K1#K2) equals c(K1) + c(K2). That is indeed true for the trefoil knot, the figure-eight knot, and all other cases knot theorists have been able to check. But the verification gets unwieldy as the number of crossings increases. It's altogether possible, Lackenby notes, that two knots, each requiring 100 crossings, could be put together and then redrawn with just 199 crossings.

    Lackenby's recent result, which he began working on about a year ago, is that c(K1#K2) has to be at least as large as (c(K1) + c(K2))/281. The basic idea is to think of each knot as enclosed in a spherical bubble and then carefully analyze what must happen to the bubbles if the knot sum is twisted into a new shape with fewer crossings. The analysis produces the factor 281.

    To prove the full conjecture, mathematicians need to whittle the number all the way down to 1. Some other approach will be needed for that effort, Lackenby says. “The number [281] is painful to work out,” he notes. “One probably can reduce it further, maybe to around 100, but I'm not sure it's worth the effort.”

  15. Keeping Score

    This map offers basic information on five important components of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in the countries profiled in this special issue.

    PDF of Map


    'A Crisis in Student Quantity and Quality'

    1. John Bohannon

    Kath Handasyde enlists native species, assertive Americans, and anything else on hand to rekindle a passion for science among undergrads

    Native skills.

    Kath Handasyde (left) shows student Natalie Briscoe how to attach a radio collar using a stuffed wallaby.


    MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—Tromping down an academic hallway with her flyaway shock of reddish-gold hair and a thin braid shooting out from behind one ear, Kath Handasyde looks like she's just wandered in from the Australian bush. In fact, she has. But the University of Melbourne (UM) ecologist, who specializes in Australia's endangered native mammals—particularly the egg-laying duckbilled platypus—is already hunting for another of Australia's endangered native species: undergraduate science majors.

    She finds them clustered around a low table in the Zoology Department tearoom. Devi Stuart-Fox, their instructor, lets the undergraduates do the talking. “We're using guppies to measure the evolutionary tradeoff between behaviors for attracting mates versus avoiding predators,” says Danial Hunter, a third-year student. They're hoping the project will result in a peer-reviewed publication.

    Back in her office, Handasyde, a compact, 48-year-old, fast-talking ball of energy, raves about her students. “In a good year, up to half of the undergraduate projects produce a publication,” she says, “and many students even publish two papers before they graduate.” That impressive track record is partly due to what Handasyde calls “hands-on, research-focused teaching,” including exposing all zoology majors to the trials and tribulations of grant writing. “It was extremely useful,” says one of her students, Natalie Briscoe, who successfully persuaded a panel of classmates to fund an imaginary research project—before winning a genuine $5500 government award for a developmental study of caterpillars.

    But Handasyde and her colleagues worry that such high-achieving science undergraduates are becoming increasingly rare. “We're facing a crisis,” says Peter Rathjen, the UM dean of sciences, “both in terms of quantity and quality of students.” The overall fraction of Australian undergraduates choosing science-related fields has held steady at about 20%, but growth in specialized applied fields, such as information technology, has “masked” a steady decline in the basic sciences, he says.

    That decline has had a corresponding effect on the number of faculty positions because Australian universities, including UM, receive government funding on a perstudent basis. “We're facing a serious challenge,” says Rathjen. Mathematics has taken the biggest hit, with a 30% decline in faculty slots across the country over the past decade.

    Growing up in a rural area, Handasyde decided at age 6 to become a zoologist. She tries to emulate the “passion and excitement” that she experienced 30 years ago as an undergraduate in the same department. “The classes were smaller, and staff were less loaded with the huge diversity of modern tasks that we undertake now,” she says.

    But that happy story doesn't seem to hold true elsewhere. To keep their classrooms filled, many science departments have needed to lower entrance requirements. “In effect,” says Rathjen, “universities are taking in students to study science who do not have the preparation, and possibly ability, to complete courses of proper rigor.” He says that high school students have been allowed to drift away from taking challenging courses such as calculus, and teachers lack incentives to upgrade their knowledge.

    But it isn't all gloom and doom. One positive trend in the undergraduate ranks, says Handasyde, is the massive influx of overseas students in the past 5 years. Most come to Australia from newly affluent eastern Asia with their sights set on careers in business, biotechnology, engineering, and medicine. The added ethnic diversity—a quarter of Australian undergrads now hail from abroad—” really opens the world for our students,” she says.

    About 6% of the overseas students come from the United States, a trend that brings a smile to Handasyde's face. “What we all love about the American students is how much more assertive they are in the classroom than us Aussies,” she says. She avoids using the moniker “good-natured loud-mouths”—a common term here—but her point is clear. “They spark conversations [in classes] where teachers usually struggle to get students to interact.”

    At the same time, the increasing diversity hasn't corrected a serious underrepresentation on campuses of indigenous people. Although as many as 5% of Australians are indigenous, they make up only 1% of the student body. And science is near the bottom of their list of majors, says Ian Anderson, director of UM's Centre for Health and Society. Poor preparation is one reason, he says, along with a lack of indigenous leaders in academia. Handasyde agrees. There is no easy fix, she says, but “what we badly need are more success stories.”

    One piece of good news arrived this spring with the announcement of a budget windfall. The government is setting aside an extra $4 billion next year as an endowment, with the interest going toward university infrastructure upgrades. That will be a boon to science, says Rathjen, “because our teaching and lab facilities are stuck in the 1960s and '70s.” The government is also revising its formula for funding universities, with a significant boost for scientific courses, particularly those involving labs. “I can't believe it's taken this long,” says Rathjen, “but we're finally coming around to seeing that our future depends on our scientists.”


    'This Is the Front Line ... Where I Can Really Make a Difference'

    1. Elizabeth Culotta

    Lisa Park and her colleagues take on creationism and other antiscientific attitudes in the classroom—and in the voting booth

    AKRON, OHIO—Lisa Park's introductory physical geology class at the University of Akron fills from the front and the back of the room simultaneously. Some students hustle into the front seats and chat eagerly with Park, while others drift into the very last row, leaving empty seats in front of them.

    When Park announces that the upcoming final exam will cover material from the whole term, rather than just the last few weeks, the students in the back row aren't happy. “This is the hardest class!” hisses one student, blonde hair wet but eye makeup firmly in place at 9:15 a.m. Her neighbor, whose head is down on the desk, doesn't appear to hear.

    By the end of the hour, however, even those in the back row have bestirred themselves to do a smallgroup exercise with giant plastic relief maps. The entire class can now explain that mountains form where tectonic plates converge. Score one for scientific literacy.

    “I've been at a private liberal arts school, a big research I university, and here. This is the front lines,” says Park about the University of Akron, an open-enrollment university in a northeastern Ohio city that's hoping to replace its lost manufacturing base with polymer science and biotechnology. A sizable fraction of students at the university are the first in their families to go to college, and a third don't make it beyond the first year, says geology professor David McConnell, co-author with Park and others of a new introductory earth science textbook. “This is their leg up to get somewhere,” says Park. “This is where I can really make a difference.”

    Park, 41, can identify with them. She grew up in a blue-collar suburb of Cleveland, the daughter of a NASA engineer and a teacher. “I tell people I couldn't be elitist even if I tried. I'm from Parma, Ohio,” says Park. She received her B.A. from the nearby College of Wooster and headed west—to the University of Arizona—for her Ph.D. before returning to the area in 1995 to join the faculty of the University of Akron.

    With relatively few of their students aiming to become research scientists, Park and her colleagues are gearing their efforts toward scientific literacy. “The goal is that 5 years from now, they can process information on, say, global warming in a reasonable way,” says McConnell. Adds Park, “We need to educate [students] as citizens.”

    The envelope, please. Geologist Lisa Park looks for fossils that can serve as paleoclimatic markers when she's not helping to create scientifically literate students.


    To engage their students, Park, McConnell, and others try to make science relevant with “inquiry-based” exercises like the one with the relief map. During another of Park's classes, for example, students brought in bottled and tap water. Sophomore Sarah Rolan, 24, recalls that a chemical analysis found that a leading brand of water had a pH of only 4.5. Says Park: “You've got to make it relevant or you lose them. … Their eyes glaze over when you talk about groundwater. But water they personally drink? They were totally into it.”

    Having a diverse cross section of students also means that Park and her colleagues often confront mainstream attitudes toward science, including creationism. In recent years, Park has seen a tide of creationism rising both on campus and off. “We teach almost literally in the shadow of The Chapel,” notes anthropology instructor John Reeves, referring to an evangelical megachurch on the edge of the university's urban campus.

    Creationist speakers visit the campus fairly regularly, sponsored by religious groups or a “critical thinkers club.” In her geology classes, Park explicitly debunks the idea that the biblical flood formed the Grand Canyon. Many of her students have only a sketchy background in evolution. “My high school biology teacher only went over it for a couple of days—didn't want to get into it,” says freshman accounting major Kacy Grogg, 19. Junior Brandon Behnfeldt, 21, who plans to be a biology teacher, allows that the scientific age of Earth is more reliable than the biblical one. But when it comes to evolution, he says, “I hold with intelligent design.” If he takes Park's paleontology course, he'll hear an entire lecture that skewers intelligent design arguments.

    Last fall, Park and her colleague, biology professor Stephen Weeks, worked nonstop to elect a pro-science candidate to the Ohio Board of Education. “I could not stand by and do nothing,” says Park. She analyzed local polling data that were later used to deploy volunteers on voting day. “I realized, this is paleoecology. I have two species, Democrat and Republican, and I'm looking at their site distribution.”

    Such hard work involves tradeoffs, however: Park and Weeks each missed a January deadline for submitting research proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF). “To me, fighting for evolution is part of my job,” says Weeks. “But the system is not set up to benefit those who make this kind of move.”

    Park has been funded by NSF, despite a low success rate in paleobiology, and by other sources—enough to support research by a small group of undergraduate and master's students. “One thing that got me into paleontology is just handling the fossils,” says Park. Her goal is “to keep that wonderment, that discovery, alive.”

    To judge by senior Melissa Kindle, Park's approach is working. “I want to do what she does,” says Kindle, confidently screening core samples in the sink. “I want to be a paleontologist.”


    'Much of What We Were Doing Didn't Work'

    1. Daniel Clery

    Derek Raine sees integrated sciences as a potential savior for disciplines facing declining student interest and a dwindling number of departments

    LEICESTER, U.K.—Teaching physical sciences at a British university can be a precarious business these days. Just ask Derek Raine, a physicist at the University of Leicester who has worked diligently to boost both enrollment and student achievement at this midsize physics department.

    Currying curiosity.

    Derek Raine says students “are hooked into working hard” by courses they find interesting.


    Raine has been in the forefront of efforts to introduce innovative teaching strategies and a new degree program known as Integrated Sciences. Yet despite the country's rapidly growing university system, applications for some subjects, including physics and chemistry, have been stagnant. “Big departments are sucking in more [students],” says Raine. As a result, 21 physics departments have closed over the past decade, and more than half of all U.K. universities no longer offer undergraduate chemistry courses. Even the likes of the University of Leicester are struggling to fill their courses.

    Physics and chemistry are caught in a vicious circle. High demand for graduates from high-tech industry and the financial sector has meant fewer students going into teaching. That depleted teaching corps—some 25% of U.K. high schools, for example, now have no specialist physics teacher—could mean fewer inspiring teachers, says Raine, which leads to fewer students selecting physics or chemistry at university. (At age 16, U.K. pupils choose just three or four subjects to continue through to graduation at age 18, and they study their major almost exclusively for 3 years at university.)

    This dire situation has developed despite a 42% growth in the U.K.'s undergraduate population between 1995 and 2005 and a government campaign to get at least one-half of all young people to attend university. But some subjects have lost ground: The total share studying physical sciences has dropped by nearly one percentage point since 1998, to 3.7%.

    Hence Raine's struggle to boost Leicester's undergraduate physics program. He himself trained at Cambridge University and did postdoctoral work at Oxford in quantum field theory and astrophysics that branched into biophysics. His experience teaching at the University of Leicester made him “see how much of what we were doing didn't work,” he says, especially for the average or struggling student. His search for a better answer led him to problem-based learning (PBL), an approach often used in medical schools and pioneered at Canada's McMaster University in the 1970s.

    Working in teams, students are given a real-world problem to research, solve, and then explicate to the class. One exercise casts students as the crew of a cargo plane that has crashed on a desert island and asks them to construct some sort of beacon to communicate their position. Such problem solving “is what we do every day as researchers,” says Sarah Symons, head of a project to develop PBL at Leicester. “I can't see why it's not obvious to everyone.”

    Today, after 7 years of work, about 25% of Leicester's physics courses are taught using PBL, and three-quarters of staff members are involved in some way. Leicester's chemistry department is developing a PBL course, and a few other U.K. universities are altering their curricula. Although studies of the effectiveness of PBL have produced contradictory results, some suggest that students retain their knowledge longer and are better at applying it to real-world situations.

    The U.K. government is also belatedly tackling the problem. The lack of action on physics education is a “big failure” of Tony Blair's government, charges Peter Cotgreave of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London. But after some high-profile department closures (Science, 4 February 2005, p. 668, and 1 December 2006, p. 1363), the government last year put up $150 million over 3 years to help finance expensive lab-based courses and gave grants to physics, chemistry, engineering, and mathematics societies to stimulate demand for and improve curricula. Raine is involved in one such project being run by the Institute of Physics (IOP) in London to create a multidisciplinary degree with a healthy dose of physics. “Derek's always up for something new,” says IOP's Philip Diamond.

    Raine actually began developing such a degree 5 years ago in an attempt to expand science enrollment at Leicester. His Integrated Sciences course has been running for 3 years now, using PBL extensively. The curriculum asks students how they might have built the pyramids of Egypt and used them for astronomy, and then moves on to space science, nanotechnology, biomechanics, and quantum teleportation, among other subjects. All of these topics are presented in PBL scenarios such as mock court cases, film productions, and preparations for the 2012 London Olympics. “You can ask any question, no matter how stupid,” says second-year undergraduate Ben Watson.

    Undergraduates aren't yet flocking to pursue the Integrated Sciences degree, however. This year's first graduating class numbers only six students, and in a typical year, fewer than 10 enter the program. “Students are wary of something new,” says course administrator Alex Mack, and sometimes unsure of what it prepares them to do. Raine thinks it's ideal training for interdisciplinary research, science-based industry, or teaching. Raine is hoping that IOP's decision to sponsor similar degrees at three other universities—Surrey, University of East Anglia, and London South Bank—will create a “brand” that will boost enrollment.

    “Our vision is that all science students should initially come in studying Integrated Sciences,” Raine says. “Not everyone is going to be a string theorist.”

  19. FRANCE

    Opening Up to the Rest of the World

    1. Martin Enserink

    Antoine de Daruvar injects the real world into his bioinformatics classroom in an attempt to reinvigorate higher education


    Antoine de Daruvar's industrial experience is unusual for a French academic.


    BORDEAUX, FRANCE—It's the day of reckoning in Antoine de Daruvar's bioinformatics class at the Université Victor Segalen Bordeaux 2—time for his students to show what they have learned the past semester. Their assignment was to write a computer application to help biologists search genetic databases, and Daruvar is eager to test-drive the results.

    “Hmmm … is that image free of copyrights?” he asks a duo who have embellished their start page with a picture of a magnifying glass. “Mission accomplished,” he beams at the authors of a nearly flawless piece of software.

    Daruvar, director of the Centre for Bioinformatics of Bordeaux (CBIB), is a new kind of professor on the French academic landscape. With roots and continuing ties to the business world—” an anomaly” on French campuses, says microbiologist and colleague Alain Blanchard—he's well-equipped to promote technology transfer, a weak link in the French economy. “The university doesn't have enough people like him,” says Béatrice Chassaing of the Regional Council of Aquitaine, which is supporting CBIB. Chassaing says she's also impressed with Daruvar's “dynamism and enthusiasm.”

    Daruvar, 44, strongly agrees that French universities should open up to the rest of the world. He encourages his students to do internships or projects abroad, and he hopes to create a master's degree in functional genomics, taught entirely in English. Opponents say such programs will deal the coup de grâce to French as a scientific language.

    His own atypical background helped shape his conviction that French higher education needs to make some drastic changes. After obtaining a master's degree in informatics in 1987, Daruvar worked as an industrial software engineer and a bioinformaticist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, before joining a bioinformatics start-up company there. He followed his neuroscientist wife when she got a job in Bordeaux, where he was asked to set up bioinformatics training within the biology curriculum. That work led to a professorship, which represented a 50% salary cut but lifetime job security as a civil servant.

    With a dozen employees, CBIB provides software support to the university's life scientists, conducts joint research—for instance, in comparative genomics studies of bacteria—and does some independent work in informatics. But it's the teaching that Daruvar loves most, especially when he can infect his students with his own fascination for the art of writing software. (Judging from a few glazed looks, not all of his pupils have caught the bug yet.) He's perplexed by other aspects of academic life, however, in particular the lack of institutional autonomy.

    For instance, prospective faculty members must be “qualified” by peer panels at the National Council of Universities in Paris. Those panels meet only once a year, creating delays. Daruvar's career path and shorter publication list did not bother the university, but they raised questions for the panel. Daruvar says the system is “absurd” and “incomprehensible to foreign scientists” who are repelled by such seemingly arbitrary hurdles.

    Paris's power extends to many other areas of academic life and, according to Daruvar and others, stifles innovation. The education ministry requires every professor and assistant professor to teach 192 hours a year, regardless of other duties. At many universities, ministry-imposed budgets for everything from housing to maintenance make it almost impossible for universities to set new priorities, Daruvar says. (Bordeaux 2 was one of the first to negotiate a lump-sum budget recently.)

    These issues have been debated in France for many years, and several governments have tried reforms—only to pull back in the face of protests from unions and students. The new government, too, has proposed giving universities more autonomy, and Daruvar believes it may have a better chance to succeed as the groundswell for reform grows. To wit, he says opposition to his plan for teaching a master's program in English is softening. The university and the ministry understand that France needs more foreign students, he says, and French students realize that English is crucial for their career perspectives. Besides, he argues, “it's too late” to rescue scientific French.

    A few things are unlikely to change, however. Open enrollments and low tuitions mean that many students enter the university without knowing what they want to do and lacking motivation. As a result, more than 25% drop out in the first 2 years. “That's a big waste,” Daruvar says, and a demoralizing experience for the dropouts.

    Daruvar doesn't advocate changing those policies—” the universities have to remain open to all,” he says, and indeed, the new government has said it won't touch the twin hot-button issues. But he would like to see students receive much more guidance when choosing a field and a university. Once students realize that the ivory tower isn't their only career option, he reasons, perhaps it will be easier to keep them on campus.

  20. BRAZIL

    'I Do Not Make a Distinction Between Teaching and Research'

    1. Marcelo Leite*
    1. Marcelo Leite is a writer in Säo Paolo.

    Antônio Carlos Paväo combines the ideal with the practical to bring science to the masses and create the next generation of scientists

    RECIFE, BRAZIL—Leon Trotsky peers down on visitors to the tiny 3-by-5-meter space that passes for the office of Antônio Carlos Paväo at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) here in northeastern Brazil. The tenured professor of theoretical chemistry finds the concept of permanent revolution espoused by the bearded Bolshevik to be an apt metaphor for his efforts to reform science education. “The revolution does not proceed stage-wise but permanently,” he points out. “The same applies to teaching.”

    Equally graying and bearded, the 56-year-old Paväo manages to incorporate the utopian view of the martyred Marxist without losing touch with reality. He's the only professor in the department who shares his office space with a quartet of graduate students, for example—but he doesn't lend out any of his cherished books. And on larger issues, he's adept at the art of the possible. As chair of a national panel to evaluate junior high science textbooks, he first argued that none deserved a seal of approval from the Education Ministry. “All the books have flaws,” he explained.

    In the end, he agreed that 13 of the 23 series warranted a place on the ministry's list, giving them a shot at a $335 million market reaching 31 million pupils. But he had made his point: Glossy pictures and hands-on demonstrations are no substitute for teachers, like himself, who are devoted to turning students into practicing researchers and who know how to find value from the most mundane resources. “What school in Brazil has no ants in the yard?” asks Paväo, who as a graduate student once sent Säo Paulo secondary students spinning in opposite directions to help them understand the structure of the atom.

    Most science teachers are far from being that resourceful. The life of a Brazilian secondary school teacher is not easy, thanks to low wages, poor teaching conditions, and mounting violence. The resulting teacher shortage is particularly serious in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics: From 1990 to 2001, for example, only 7200 students earned a degree to teach physics despite the estimated 55,000 jobs available in the nation's schools.

    With the corner druggist sometimes teaching physics in understaffed public high schools, it's no surprise that Brazilian 15-year-olds ranked last among 41 countries in mathematics and 40th in science in 2003 on an international assessment involving 15-year-old students. It also helps explain why up to 40% of students entering UFPE's Center for Exact and Natural Sciences, where Paväo teaches, drop out after the first semester; in other Brazilian federal universities, the number is as high as 75%. “Mathematics is the knot,” Paväo explains, although he says students are also put off by the current university practice of lumping together all science, engineering, and mathematics students in courses devoid of labs and actual research.

    Two years ago, Paväo and his colleagues began an experiment to circumvent the students' lack of preparation. They added a third phase to the traditional two-step admission process, which includes a massive multiple choice test followed by handwritten exams. UFPE now accepts three times more candidates than it has room for and offers them a series of one-semester, pre-entry science courses. Those who pass the closing exams are allowed to enter the regular undergraduate program, which, like all Brazilian public universities, is free.

    Science for all.

    Antônio Paväo (in orange T-shirt) plays with visitors at the science museum in Recife.


    In his general chemistry classroom, Paväo puts on quite a show. He'll place a tomato on the table and ask why it's red. Or he'll grab a soccer ball from his briefcase and point out how well its pentagons and hexagons fit in a round surface, a seamless introduction to a fullerene molecule made up of 60 carbon atoms and an explanation of chemical bonds. “Better and more experienced professors should be teaching undergrad courses to freshmen and sophomores,” he argues, aware that his advice is not usually followed.

    His goal, he declares, is to explain the structure of matter. “I do not make a distinction between teaching and research. There is a fascination among students for advanced subjects. I take advantage of it,” says Paväo. “At the end of the day, I think I end up helping them overcome their shortcomings and understand the need to study and learn more about those 'boring things' in mathematics, physics, etc.”

    His colleagues say that his work in both realms is top-notch. “Paväo is an original theoretical chemist, with very wide-ranging interests,” says Nobelist Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University, whose picture hangs alongside the Trotsky poster. “Paväo's command of theoretical formalism and attention to experimental detail,” Hoffmann explains, makes for “an appealing combination.”

    When not at UFPE teaching and doing research, Paväo directs Espaço Ciência, a state-owned, open-air science museum squatted in a semiabandoned exhibition pavilion between the cities of Recife and Olinda. Some of its yearly 80,000 visitors—mostly teachers and pupils—later attend summer hands-on courses at UFPE, another of Paväo's multiple activities. Those taking a 2-week course on “Kitchen Chemistry,” for example, might employ a $300,000 spectrometer trying to solve the structural mystery of stale butter.

    The initiative is part of a network set up by faculty members at 10 federal universities on a slim budget, and his ever-active mind sees it as a model. “UFPE has about 50 departments,” he says. “If all engage in pilot projects such as ours, we could do 50 times more.” In the meantime, Trotsky's looming presence reminds Paväo that providing every child in Brazil with access to the wonders of science requires a blend of utopian dreams and the patience and vigilance of a disciplined activist.

  21. RUSSIA

    'The Teacher Is Still the Central Figure'

    1. Bryon MacWilliams*
    1. Bryon MacWilliams is a writer in Moscow.

    Irina Sukovataya taps into software and the resources of a new mega-university to help physics students

    KRASNOYARSK, RUSSIA—In a small laboratory, first-year physics students are running electric current through a diode. Although the actual diode is in another room, its depiction on a computer screen allows students to work at their own pace, spares the equipment, eliminates accidents, and offers both students and teachers greater flexibility in what is typically a heavy work schedule. Biophysicist Irina Sukovataya devised this and similar software for her physics classes at Siberian Federal University (SFU)—and potentially for thousands of other students from across the vast region who can't travel here. “The software allows for an individual trajectory of study. A student can begin at any stage he likes,” says Sukovataya.

    In this country of 11 time zones, a university that is east of the Ural Mountains can be easily forgotten when almost all the people and money are to the west. SFU, less than 1 year old, is one of the country's four new megauniversities. Together with those in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Rostovon-Don—and a fifth planned for Vladivostok—the megauniversities represent the government's latest attempt to reward innovation and restore quality in higher education across the nation.

    That initiative is part of a slew of Western-style reforms to Russian higher education that include creating two elite business schools and replacing the current 5-year degree with a more compact 4-year system in line with the Bologna process. SFU is due to receive $386 million by 2010, about eight times the combined budget of the four institutions that were merged into SFU. Refurbishing laboratories is a high priority, along with offering higher salaries and stipends to attract and retain faculty members.

    So far, the 35-year-old Sukovataya is ahead of the curve. A graduate of Krasnoyarsk State University, now part of SFU, Sukovataya did graduate work at the Russian Academy of Sciences' (RAS) Institute of Biophysics here. In 2001, she joined the faculty of Krasnoyarsk State Technical University, also now a part of SFU.

    Sukovataya has twice won an annual scholarship for excellence in teaching and research, along with a stipend that far exceeds her monthly salary. Her new teaching materials and automated methods of instruction are all the more remarkable because they arose in an academic environment still dominated by Soviet-era thinking. “We developed these materials because they are convenient and helpful, not because there was some kind of directive from the Education and Science Ministry,” she says. “We began earlier, much earlier.”

    Helping hands.

    Irina Sukovataya has used money from teaching awards to develop new instructional materials.


    The diode software, developed at the multimedia lab run by her husband, Aleksei, a specialist in quantum electronics, gives students the option of studying when and where they want. That's a radical concept for those used to adhering to a rigid path laid down by federal officials. “In fact, when I see students with a very high level of ability, I try to direct them to study on their own, at home,” says Sukovataya.

    But that's easier said than done. Aleksandra Altukhova, whose father is a physicist, says that although a computer can replicate a piece of lab equipment, it cannot replicate a teacher. Besides, she confesses, it is more difficult to work independently, and Sukovataya can be persuaded to give hints not forthcoming from the software. The two have worked out a compromise, Sukovataya says: “I told her that she could come in once per month, not every week.”

    Similar software is also useful for distance learning. Students at technical schools across Siberia have used it to perform experiments online and even to direct robots, and the university eventually hopes to offer its programs to students from China, India, Mongolia, and the former Soviet republics, according to Sergei Verkhovets, head of international relations.

    This semester, however, all 70 of Sukovataya's students are physically in her classroom. That means she spends 30 hours a week, including Saturdays, teaching in labs and lecture halls. “There is very little time for research,” she says. “Still, I have not dropped my scientific research completely” on bioluminescence, which she carries out at the RAS institute. “After all, a teacher ideally should be up to speed on research and not just what is written in textbooks.”

    Echoing her student, she adds that the new software is not a substitute for a teacher. “Some teachers think, 'Now the software has appeared, I am not needed anymore.' But, in reality, it is the opposite. The teacher is still the central figure.”


    'I Wish ... I Could Give [Them All] Computers'

    Leslie Lekala teaches physics to thousands of students whom he'll never meet, using distance learning to help overcome the legacy of apartheid

    Global reach.

    Campus signpost shows how far Leslie Lekala will go to teach physics.


    PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA—As a boy, Leslie Lekala walked 2 hours each way to high school. Three decades later, he's still involved in distance education. But this time, he's teaching physics to thousands of students scattered across Africa.

    Lekala's high school in remote Limpopo Province offered no physics or higher math, and his first lab course was at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), where he earned degrees in physics and mathematics. Now, he's a senior lecturer at the University of South Africa (UNISA), the continent's largest distance-learning institution and one of the world's megauniversities. But whereas some of those giant universities are switching to Internet learning, most of UNISA's assignments are still sent and received by snail mail. “I wish I had a magic wand and could give computers to each of our students,” says Lekala about his first-year class of 1000 students. “But many of them simply don't have ready access to the Internet.”

    UNISA's enrollment of nearly 210,000 includes about 14,000 science or engineering majors. Many students can't afford, or don't qualify for, admission to other universities. Despite losing the cream of the crop to the nation's elite residential universities, Lekala says about 20% of his first-year students will major in physics, and some will go on for advanced degrees. That leaves Lekala, 46, with the enormous challenge of giving them a good foundation.

    One obstacle is explaining difficult concepts without benefit of classrooms or face-to-face sessions. Lekala's most potent tool, for the relatively small percentage of students who seek help, is the telephone. “It's so much easier when you are in front of a chalkboard,” says the soft-spoken Lekala. “By phone, you must be very clear in your explanations.”

    Although Lekala speaks seven of South Africa's 11 official languages, he wrestles to translate some physics concepts. Force and power, for example, are expressed by the same word in some African languages. “You have to explain the distinctions,” he says. UNISA administrators are considering more “extra learner support” programs that would bring Lekala and his colleagues closer to students, including additional satellite classes, face-to-face tutoring, and online discussion groups. Many students would like more contact with their lecturers. “It is often difficult to outline your problem to a lecturer over the phone,” says Ditlhase Frans Masita, who earned both his B.Sc. and master's degrees in physics at UNISA and plans to start work there soon on his Ph.D. Another problem, he says, is that “there are very limited resources” for lab work at UNISA, requiring upper-level students to travel to Johannesburg to use labs at Wits University. (Students travel to one of several UNISA testing centers around the country for final exams.)

    Indeed, teaching lab sciences poses a major problem for many distance-learning universities. The acting dean of UNISA's science and engineering college, mathematician Ian Alderton, says students have access to software for learning basic lab procedures and “home experiment kits” for first-year physics. Many courses also require a 2-week intensive laboratory course, taken either at UNISA or another approved site.

    For many first-year students, the lack of familiarity with lab work is a legacy of the apartheid regime, which invested little money for teaching science in mostly black schools. The weakness of disadvantaged schools continues: Last year, only about 15% of the 195,000 secondary school seniors in South Africa passed the qualifying exam in the physical sciences. This spring, the education minister—embarrassed that South African students ranked lowest on the last Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study exam, pulled out of the current round. Meanwhile, the ministry has established a nationwide network of 102 “Dinaledi schools”—similar to science-magnet high schools in the United States—to boost the study of math and physical science.

    Poor preparation is not limited to students at distance-education universities. Geology professor Nicolas Beukes of the University of Johannesburg says some students are allowed to spread their one-term introductory geology course over a full year to have more time to master basic concepts. Similar “bridging” programs are being considered at UNISA.

    Even if the quality of new science students can be improved, the number of students interested in science—especially the physical sciences—has been shrinking. Alarmed, the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement is working with both primary and secondary schools on programs to interest talented students in science. Gillian Arendse, a physics lecturer at Stellenbosch University who leads interactive sessions with high school students as well as workshops for teachers, says, “It's a challenge to attract the brightest students into science.”

    The goal of keeping talented students in school is one reason Lekala spends two-thirds of his time on teaching and administrative work. Even so, he manages to conduct research in his field of few-body physics, attend conferences, and stay in touch with colleagues around the world. He also reserves time for the 10 students typically in his higher-level classes. “These students know the basic concepts and tend to have better access to the Internet,” says Lekala. “But it's still a challenge to teach them well.”


    'Can't Have a Career... Without English'

    Katrin Schäfer helps students acquire the skills they need to live and work in a global scientific community

    VIENNA, AUSTRIA—Danke, sehr gut,” says Katrin Schäfer, nodding to Christopher Schmied that he's up next. Schmied walks to the front of the class and takes a deep breath before launching into a description of his undergraduate research project, a social psychology experiment to test people's perception of facial hair. But the air seems to thicken like molasses as he switches to his Austrian-accented English.

    The previous presentation had crackled along in German, with lightning-fast questions, answers, and even a few jokes zinging between Schäfer, a biological anthropologist, and her undergraduate students. But the easy fluency falls away as the class wrestles with a foreign language. In the polyglot discussion that follows, Schäfer switches between German and her crisply fluent English as needed to keep the conversation going.

    Schäfer is a strong proponent of teaching science undergraduates here in English as a way to produce better prepared graduates and help the university attract the brightest students from across Europe. “You simply cannot have a career in the sciences without fluent English,” says Schäfer, who grew up in Germany but moved to Vienna in 1988, “and the sooner you start, the better.”

    Walking down the hall after class, Schäfer daydreams about spending some time on her own research, the evolutionary forces that shaped the modern human skull. This is a “luxury” for which she carves out “10% of the week,” an amount typical for someone past the grueling habilitation period but still early in her career. But students suddenly descend like hawks from every direction, desperately seeking final tweaks to posters that they must finish before accompanying her to an upcoming anthropology conference in Philadelphia. She's by their side until 7 p.m., looking over the English-language explanations of their work.

    “I'm happy to do this because I want them to have a different experience from what we had,” she says. As an undergraduate in this department nearly 20 years ago, says Schäfer, it was “sink or swim.” Students were responsible for finding a faculty mentor and developing a research project that would lead to a Ph.D. “We were all so confused, and many of us dropped out or failed.” Today's students have “wonderful advantages,” she says, including guaranteed mentoring and exposure to international students and visiting scientists. “They also have more choices. Only about 10% go on to do a Ph.D., and that's fine. The [undergraduate] degree is still valuable.”

    Undergirding these new resources is a shifting landscape of language. Only a few generations ago, when cutting-edge research was published in journals with names like Angewandtechemie, proficiency in German was a must for serious science students around the world. Times have changed. Now most researchers acknowledge that English is science's lingua franca.

    Auf Englisch, bitte.

    Katrin Schäfer (left) believes that teaching undergraduates in German puts them at a disadvantage.


    But switching over to an English-based curriculum will not come easy, says fellow University of Vienna (UV) anthropologist Karl Grammer. “The opposition … will be very high,” he says, “mainly because it would mean giving up German as a scientific language.” Faculty members would also have to redo all their teaching material. Grammer favors a bachelor's program in German with an optional switch to English at the master's level.

    Georg Winckler, an economist and rector of UV, would like the faculty to embrace what he calls “multilingualism”: courses taught in German, with visiting professors lecturing in English. “The students can ask questions in German,” he says, “and the professor must be able to understand but can answer in English.” But at the moment, the decision is left to each department. Some, such as the molecular biology program, have already switched to English for their lectures.

    Although Schäfer agrees that a melting-pot approach would help attract international students, she sees a deeper problem with holding on to the mother tongue. By requiring German language ability, candidates for new university positions are “limited to the German-speaking world.” That factor helps explain why Austrian universities are filling with German scientists. “I have nothing against Germans; after all, I'm one of them,” she says, “but if we're going to be a competitive research university, we need people from all around the world.” The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has recruited a “world-class faculty,” she says, by “doing everything in English.”

    This linguistic battle is taking place as UV and other universities on the continent struggle to restructure their degree programs. The current undergraduate system, identical to that of Germany to the northwest, is 5 years of study and a research-based thesis culminating in a degree called the Diplom. But in line with the “Bologna process”—an over-arching plan to promote academic mobility in Europe by standardizing degrees that grew out of a 1999 gathering of education ministers in Bologna, Italy—the Diplom will be reduced to a 3-year U.K.-style bachelor's degree. To fill the gap between the bachelor's and the Ph.D., universities are introducing a buffet of 2-year master's degrees.

    Although that transition may be a rocky one, everyone agrees that the status quo no longer works. It's a wrenching concession for an institution established in 1365 that helped spawn the current Anglo-American system. Now the tables are turned, Schäfer admits, “but it is for the best.”

  24. INDIA

    Beyond Islands of Excellence

    1. Pallava Bagla

    Nandula Raghuram's hands-on approach gives students a solid foundation for a biotech career

    NEW DELHI, INDIA—Housed in the narrow by lanes of the old walled city of Delhi, where the modern Metro train and the horse-drawn cart compete for space, Nandula Raghuram's teaching laboratory provides a haven for three dozen budding biotechnologists. Hampered by inadequate supplies and equipment, the 42-year-old molecular biologist at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University (GGSIPU) here makes do. Absent the large, expensive glass columns normally used for gel filtration, students separate proteins using ordinary surgical syringes whose ends have been plugged with latex tubes and tied off with thin rubber bands. “It's a low-cost, low-tech solution, but it allows each student to get his hands wet,” he says.

    Raghuram is an atypical teacher in a typical Indian university. Born into a middle-class family from a small town in southern India, Raghuram earned a Ph.D. in 1995 from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and worked for industry before becoming a science policy analyst at the Center for Science and Environment here. He has also toiled as a science writer and is active in the Society for Scientific Values, a nongovernmental watchdog body that investigates scientific misconduct in India. In 2002, he became a Reader (the equivalent of an associate professor) at GGSIPU, created in 1999 as the youngest of six universities in this capital city. It allowed him to return to what he calls “my first love: doing and teaching science.”

    He devotes half of his 6-day, 65-hour workweek to teaching bachelor's and master's degree students at the university's School of Biotechnology, which accepts only 1% of the applicants for its 35 slots. That stiff competition reflects the popularity of the university's applied sciences curriculum and the success of graduates in finding good jobs, says Prakash Chand Sharma, dean of the school. In 2004, Raghuram was voted the university's best teacher based on what he believes is his success in answering a seemingly obvious question that few Indian professors actually ask: What do we want our students to learn in this class, and what skills do they need to acquire for that learning to take place?

    Raghuram prefers using chalk and blackboard rather than PowerPoint presentations, explaining that his job is “not to show off my techie skills but to explain concepts through discussion.” His first Ph.D. student, Ravi Ramesh Pathak, calls him an “unconventional guide who gives his students total freedom for a holistic learning experience.” But Raghuram laments “the declining popularity of teaching as a profession” among his peers and society as a whole.

    Value added.

    Nandula Raghuram applies his experience to enrich low-cost teaching labs.


    In addition to teaching, Raghuram spends a quarter of his time doing basic science research on how plants take up and use nitrogen. With help from his three current graduate students, his lab has published more than 20 papers. The university pays his salary, and his research is funded by grants from various sources, including the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Department of Science and Technology. The rest of his time is devoted to administrative duties, he says, including attending to students and colleagues who cluster around his small office sandwiched between the registrar's and vice chancellor's office.

    “Raghuram is both a good communicator and researcher,” says Sharma. But his many responsibilities, Sharma adds, means that “his teaching does suffer at times.”

    The School of Biotechnology offers students no formal career counseling, so Raghuram also tries to give them guidance. Sharma says about a third of the biotech graduates remain in school for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, and a third go abroad for advanced degrees in the life sciences. The remainder go to work for companies or another institution. Ironically, Raghuram has never studied overseas, although he has traveled widely. “Doing science differently in India is what I have strived for while ensuring that my students also grow and blossom,” he says.

    GGSIPU is part of the government's plan to double over a decade the 9.2 million bachelor's degrees awarded each year. And Raghuram is motivated by the fact that GGSIPU students don't have the stellar background of those who vie for the 5000 or so coveted spots each year at the seven elite Indian Institutes of Technology across the country. He hopes that his work at GGSIPU will help the country build a system of higher education that shatters the current pattern of “islands of excellence in an ocean of mediocrity.” Syringe by syringe, he's doing exactly that.

  25. CHINA

    'It's Important to Ask Students To Do Some Work on Their Own'

    1. Dennis Normile

    Yun Ying has pioneered a course that forces physics students to take the initiative and teaches them the English that they will need

    NANJING, CHINA—China is in the midst of one of the most remarkable expansions of higher education ever attempted. And although Yun Ying, a semiretired professor of physics education at Southeast University in Nanjing, may be only a bit player, she's passionate about reforming science education. And she has a lifetime of experience.

    In her nearly 6 decades as a teacher, she's weathered the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and benefited from China's opening to the West. Now, the 82-year-old Yun is leading her own minirevolution. Her introductory physics course addresses a national priority, namely, to foster economic growth by producing not just more, but more creative, scientists and engineers.

    Yun has been wrestling with the challenge of revamping physics teaching since she returned from a 1980 tour of major U.S. research universities, which convinced her that Chinese students who hoped to study abroad needed to learn English tailored to those academic subjects. She also realized that “it is very important to ask the students to do some work on their own initiative.”

    Those two principles underlie her “Bilingual Physics With Multimedia” text and CD-ROM, a freshman course she has been developing since the mid-1980s that has been adopted by 10 Chinese universities. The course not only teaches the English that students need to discuss physics but also requires students to research physics topics and present their findings to the class. That's a dramatic change from the memorization demanded in typical introductory science courses. “There are no other texts like this for physics” in China, says engineer Xue Jingxuan of the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing, who is also concerned about science education in China. Xue says few university teachers put time and effort into developing course materials.

    History lessons.

    Yun Ying has spent 60 years working to improve physics education.


    Creating a course may seem insignificant compared to the challenge of reinventing Chinese higher education. University enrollments have jumped sevenfold since 1998, to 21 million in 2005, according to the Ministry of Education. Not surprisingly, classes are crowded, teaching loads are heavy, and building sprees have left many universities with staggering debt loads. And although funding has risen, it hasn't quite kept pace with the rising numbers, leading some universities to increase tuitions and try other means of raising funds.

    But many officials say that the bigger challenge lies in reforming outdated curricula and teaching methods, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math. Teaching methods and curricula still emphasize memorization, especially at the freshman and sophomore levels, and the goal is to foster creative researchers capable of making discoveries at both the basic and applied levels. “We have to have our own intellectual property,” explains Rao Zihe, a structural biologist who is president of Nankai University in Tianjin. Rao fears that a dearth of homegrown creativity will forever relegate China to the status of refining innovations made elsewhere.

    Yun is well equipped to take on that challenge. A 1947 physics graduate of Furen University, she spent 1 year in a master's program before joining what later became Southeast University. (Teachers with only a bachelor's degree were not uncommon at the time, although most university professors now hold Ph.D.s.) She had taken English since primary school and thought it appropriate for science courses. But after the Communist Revolution, she says, “we all learned Russian.”

    Yun's course deviates from the traditional approach in Chinese schools, notes Xue, in which “those who can memorize get better scores [on tests] than those who learn the text creatively.” The textbook contains standard freshman-level lessons in momentum and energy, harmonic motion, and wave-particle duality. All explanations are given in depth in English with Chinese translations of key passages. The CD-ROM includes video clips illustrating various principles.

    The videos “gave a deeper understanding of how the laws of physics apply to daily life,” says Hu Te, a Southeast software engineering student who took Yun's course. Even more unusual is the requirement that students select a topic, research it on their own or in a small group, and then present their findings in a class seminar—all in English. Other students can ask questions, make comments, or challenge the conclusions—unprecedented conduct for Chinese undergraduates, says Xue.

    Despite the use of English, Yun hasn't watered down the content. Some of that may be due to Southeast's ranking as one of the country's top 10 comprehensive universities, with a particular strength in engineering. Li Xin, a sophomore honors student who was required to take Yun's course as a freshman, says it was completely different from his high-school physics courses, which were “just theories and equations and formulas—and boring.”

    Du Yuan, another honors student required to take the course, says the opportunity to independently research a topic—his was the “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow of Space Flight”—was a rare treat for a freshman. And Hu says the vocabulary learned in Bilingual Physics allows him “to read about the theories of Nobel Prize winners, which haven't been translated into Chinese.”

    Yun is pleased with the positive reaction to her course. Two years ago, she offered a teacher-training course for schools considering adoption of the text and CD-ROM, and now she's working on a teaching and learning guidebook.

    Xue speculates that the course hasn't attracted more attention because old habits die hard among university professors, who he says are focused on their research. But the increasing number of faculty members who were trained in the United States or Europe has sparked interest in reforming teaching at Chinese universities. A one-semester course taken primarily by engineering students may have a limited impact on Chinese education, he admits. But for those calling for an educational revolution in China, it's a good place to start.


    'A Strong Voice' For Course Reform

    Lee Duckhwan fights to keep science in the forefront of what students are asked to learn in high school and college

    SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA—A professor at a prestigious engineering college is scribbling on a chalkboard, so the story goes, when a puzzled freshman looks at the integration sign in one of the equations and asks, “What is that curly symbol?”

    Leading the charge.

    Lee Duckhwan has rallied colleagues in an effort to bolster science in Korea's national curriculum.


    Lee Duckhwan, a chemist at Sogang University here, says the story, which he swears is true, illustrates the large number of South Korean students who arrive ill-prepared for college-level mathematics. He blames the “unprecedented crisis” on a 1997 national curriculum that lifted requirements on many high school science and math courses. With two-thirds of students now avoiding science altogether in 11th and 12th grades, Lee says university science departments have been forced to offer remedial courses before students can tackle the regular curriculum.

    The state curriculum leaves little to the imagination, says Lee, who was asked to write a high school chemistry textbook. “They dictated what to put in the textbook, down to the smallest detail,” says Lee, whose complaints went unheeded. Last year, when the education ministry conducted a review of the curriculum, Lee penned commentaries and rallied colleagues in hopes of strengthening the science component. He also served on a science panel—one of 1300 experts on a dizzying 100 review groups. “Duckhwan helped us find a strong voice,” says physicist Oh Sejung, dean of natural sciences at Seoul National University (SNU).

    But in February, when the ministry unveiled new standards to take effect in 2009, the requirements had been softened further. For instance, 11th- and 12th-year students will be able to opt for a course in home economics or business management instead of science or math. The review “was bogus,” Lee fumes.

    The criticism is unwarranted, says an education ministry official, who notes that the new standards will add 1 hour a week of 10th-grade science. And she asserts that most 11th- and 12th-year students take math and science. Lee replies that the extra hour was added to “repair” what had been dropped from the 1997 curriculum and that the ministry's statistics “do not correctly reflect” science enrollments.

    Lee is no Johnny-come-lately to science literacy. He earned a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry at Cornell University in 1983 and spent 2 years at Princeton before landing at Sogang. Not content to limit himself to his field of nonlinear optics, Lee has translated several popular science books into Korean. Three years ago, he founded the country's first graduate program in science communication, and last year, he led preparations for the International Chemistry Olympiad in Seoul.

    Few countries outdo South Korea in these Olympiads or on standardized science and math tests, and until a decade ago, “every student had to learn every branch of science,” says Kim Jin Seung, a physics professor at Chonbuk National University in Jeonju. But science got caught up in a broader school reform movement sweeping across South Korea and Japan in the mid-1990s that sought to do away with heavy memorization, Saturday classes, and unbending course requirements. The outcome, says Lee, enshrines free choice as a tonic for low creativity—creating a new problem without solving the old one.

    Not only are high school students opting to take less science, but there are also fewer students to go around. The number now taking the college entrance exam is nearly half the level in the 1980s, when a postwar baby boom filled campuses. And the ratio of science to liberal arts majors has flipped from 6:4 to 3:7 in the past decade, says Kim Dohan, president of the Korean Mathematical Society and a professor at SNU.

    Two science universities—the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH)—are buffered to a degree by drawing heavily from the country's 19 elite science high schools, and SNU also gets more than its share of these science-savvy teens. Even so, Oh says, one in five SNU science and engineering freshmen needs remedial algebra before taking college-level courses.

    Lee and others worry that the revised curriculum will further dilute science teaching for most students, and the heads of six science organizations have demanded revisions in the new curriculum. “By making these [science and math] courses optional, it's a bad signal to students that math and science are not important,” says mathematician Min Kyung Chan of Yonsei University in Seoul. Ironically, these changes coincide with a doubling of government spending on research over the last 5 years.

    The status quo, Lee predicts, will lead to a steady erosion of science literacy in South Korea. That could lower the level of public discourse on many important issues—from nuclear waste disposal to the routing of high-speed train lines—with a scientific component. Lee also fears that the growth in South Korea's research capacity will be stifled.

    In the meantime, universities are scrambling to drum up interest in science. POSTECH launched an undergrad research program that awards $4000 to each of 30 students, who may choose their own topic and adviser from anywhere in the world. “The students can spend the money however they want. They decide everything,” says POSTECH's dean of student affairs, Kang In Seok, who designed the program. But such efforts may not be enough to offset rising levels of apathy toward science among the young.

  27. JAPAN

    Spreading Knowledge of Science and Technology

    Toyoko Akiyama fosters a movement to counter specialization by giving all students a real taste of her biology lab

    DNA for all.

    Toyoko Akiyama champions laboratory courses for nonscience majors.


    YOKOHAMA, JAPAN—Toyoko Akiyama began her recent biology class at Keio University here by explaining DNA analysis, including how to amplify a DNA fragment using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Then she demonstrated how to use a micropipette. Next stop was the lab, where all 58 students collected cells from their own cheeks and prepared samples for the PCR thermal cycler. When the students met again, they would learn whether they carried a particular polymorphism within a certain region of their own genome.

    Akiyama's class would not be unusual for budding biologists. But her students are majoring in economics, literature, marketing, and political and social sciences; some have taken no science courses since junior high school. “We think all educated adults should have some understanding of science and scientific procedures,” says Akiyama, explaining an educational philosophy that goes back to the school's founding in 1858 by Yukichi Fukuzawa, a leading intellectual and entrepreneur who recognized the importance of the natural sciences to Japan's modernization.

    In an era of increasing academic specialization, Keio is a rare exception among Japan's private universities in offering lab courses for nonscience majors. And most of the country's roughly 100 national universities virtually eliminated science course offerings for nonscience majors in a wave of restructuring a decade ago that closed departments of general studies, explains Toshio Hyodo, a University of Tokyo physicist long concerned about science education. But “universities are reconsidering those reformations,” he says. As both students and educators rethink the value of a well-rounded education, they could once again embrace the type of courses that Keio has been offering for 50 years.

    Akiyama, a biophysicist, is not an obvious choice to be leading the charge. Shoulder-high even to most of her female students, with a ready smile and quiet demeanor, she and her colleagues here on Keio's Hiyoshi campus technically belong to the faculty of law and not the science faculty, located at another of its five campuses throughout the Tokyo area. (Considered one of Japan's top private universities, Keio counts many prominent business people and politicians among its alumni.) She admits to an occasional longing to “talk to students who are science majors,” which she indulges by giving seminars and courses in her specialty of pigment cells and their developmental processes. And she tries to carve out a few days a week to pursue her research, although she concedes that “lots of meetings” interrupt that schedule.

    But teaching biology to nonscience majors is her passion, one that she's pursued for 30 years. She puts considerable time into developing lesson plans. Her curriculum is more topical than systematic, and experimental themes resonate with current issues. In setting up the DNA experiment, she mentioned how DNA analysis determined that recently recovered human remains were probably not those of a famous kidnapping victim.

    “DNA is in the news, and this helps us understand what it is all about,” says Taro Yamanaka, a 19-year-old political science major who was handling a pipette for the first time. Akiyama says she enjoys watching students discover a new interest and nurturing an antidote to a growing alienation from the natural sciences among Japan's youth.

    One of the challenges Akiyama faces is a wide range in the amount of high school preparation her students have had. Many students devote all their time to the subjects they need to master to pass specialized university entrance exams. So when they enter Akiyama's classroom, some students have only junior high science courses to their credit whereas others have 3 years of high school biology. “Some students find the material too basic, whereas others struggle,” she says.

    On this day, everyone seems to be keeping up with the DNA analysis. Yamanaka says the lab work is a “refreshing change from studying law all the time.” Classmate Kanako Arai, an economics major, hopes to meld her interests by studying the economic aspects of environmental issues. A 2005 survey done by the university of alumni 5 and 10 years after graduation found that 80% thought the natural science education was worthwhile, and 90% felt that the lab experiments were meaningful.

    And the courses could get even better. In 2005, Japan's Ministry of Education awarded the Keio group a 4-year, $900,000 grant—supplemented by the university—to develop new experiments and to survey natural science education for nonscience majors both in Japan and overseas. “One of the objectives of the grant is to serve as a possible model for other universities,” says Minoru Omote, a Keio physicist who is leading the project.

    A model might not be sufficient, however. Student labs require benches, plumbing, and safety devices not needed in lecture halls. And the DNA experiment, for example, relies on centrifuges, hot-water baths, PCR cyclers, and pipettes, as well as consumables such as pipette tips and reagents. Akiyama also depends on three teaching assistants to help supervise the students' lab efforts. Lab classes “take a lot of money and space,” says Akiyama. Given scarce resources, it may be hard to spread Keio's example.

  28. Straight Talk About STEM Education

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Getting your hands dirty is one of many keys to a successful undergraduate education in the sciences, says this panel of U.S. educators

    Scientists from a venerable women's college, an elite liberal arts' school with a focus on science and engineering, and an expanding urban university might seem to inhabit different worlds. But when Science invited environmental scientist Stephanie Pfirman of Barnard College in New York City, mathematician Daniel Goroff of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, and biochemist Michael Summers of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), to participate in a roundtable discussion, the three distinguished educators had no trouble finding common ground in describing their efforts to improve undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. Here is an excerpt of that conversation. You can listen to the complete interview using the player to the right.

    Use the controls above to listen to the full text of the roundtable interview.

    What are the challenges facing institutions trying to increase participation in STEM fields?

    Summers: We have 12,000 students at UMBC, and there can be 300 or 400 students in a session of freshman chemistry. But when students come to college with an interest in science and take these big courses, some of them get turned off very quickly. They haven't figured out what it takes to excel at the college level, and it can be disheartening if you come from a population that isn't well represented in the sciences and you look around and see other students performing well.

    What's the freshman experience like at Harvey Mudd?

    Goroff: All of our students come here expecting to do something in a STEM field, and our core program aims to prepare them to address the big problems in the world. In addition, anything we can do to erase the myth of a lone genius as the exemplar of what it takes to succeed in science and show them that science is done in connected communities rather than by someone holed away in an office really helps with the retention problem.

    Pfirman: For many liberal arts students, their only exposure is through a science requirement. Unfortunately, these classes have often dumbed down the science. At Barnard, there are first-year seminars that had traditionally been offered by the English and humanities departments, and we decided to offer one in the sciences that sneaks in the science along with the rest of the subject matter. After the class, the students reported they felt a greater connection to science and saw a greater role for science in their lives.

    How hard is it to revise an intro course, and what are the limiting factors?

    Summers: Part of it is knowing what to do. NSF [National Science Foundation] and HHMI [Howard Hughes Medical Institute] have funded pilot projects that are, in effect, experiments designed to modify the curriculum, for example, to make biology more quantitative. What's needed now are the data that show the impact of these programs.

    Pfirman: Faculty really want to be effective. It's not just what content is appropriate but also how to deliver it and how to assess it, so that you can do a better job next time. … What would really help is a way to find out what's out there that has worked well. I was just looking for a lab module to go with a unit on the ocean's role in the carbon cycle. It's a fairly basic concept. But I couldn't find anything on the Web.

    What would you recommend for a faculty member who wants to do something but doesn't know where to look?

    Summers: When we decided that we wanted to try to retain more students in chemistry, we looked at bridge programs—a summer program for incoming freshmen—including how to study in groups. Hal White at the University of Delaware has been doing good things with small groups. But these things cost money, and you need teaching assistants. So we had to go to the administration to get money to test this experiment. But now that we've done it and put the results on the Web, I would hope that other faculty could take the data and show it to the dean and say, “This is what worked there, and I think we can do the same thing here.”

    Goroff: I'd encourage faculty to get involved with national groups, too. It doesn't make sense to reinvent the wheel, much less the flat tire. Project Kaleidoscope [] is a network of young faculty who are sharing ideas. Project Next [] is another such effort.

    UMBC is one of several institutions that are trying to increase retention rates among minority students and narrow the achievement gap. How is that working?

    Summers: Our president, Freeman Hrabowski, began with the premise that there are a large number of high-achieving minority students, in particular African Americans, who are just not being retained once they enter college to study science. He goes after them in high school. He brings them to campus with their families, and we start talking about earning a Ph.D. degree.

    Over the past 20 years, we've graduated more than 500 students, a large percentage of whom have gone on to get graduate degrees. … And we've tried to quantify the experiment with controls. We bring about 200 students to campus and make about 100 offers—and these are full scholarships—knowing that only about 50 will actually join the program. And before we make an offer, we make parents sign a waiver that says even if you turn us down, we want to be able to track them. So now we have a database. It turns out that if they go elsewhere—and these kids get offers from Ivy League schools and everywhere else—they are half as likely to graduate with a science or math degree and more than five times less likely to go to graduate school.

    Flying high.

    (Top) Harvey Mudd students test carbon fiber poles and the output of LED lights in a project for the Federal Aviation Administration. (Left) Meyerhoff graduate fellows take a break from the lab for an outing to Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. (Right) Barnard's Maggie Chan collects and characterizes sediment samples from the Hudson River bed near Manhattan.


    Have you identified elements that make a difference?

    Summers: We haven't identified what happens to them on other campuses. But at UMBC, the top thing is making sure that they are academically successful in the freshman courses. It starts with a summer bridge, and it includes getting students involved right away with research projects.

    A lot of them have taken AP classes and could place out of chemistry. But they take the freshman courses, anyway. And the key is doing well in those first courses. Because if they are successful, then the research faculty are eager to get them involved in their labs.

    What if they're not successful?

    Summers: There are counselors in their first semester who keep track of every pop quiz and test that students take. If they have problems, they are immediately paired up with other classmates who are doing well in a particular subject. And we pay seniors to be mentors. We'll also call the parents, and there's a parents' association that provides money and time. This is a group effort.

    People have accused the program of cherry picking by only taking the most able students. What's your response?

    Summers: We are taking students who are most likely to succeed based on high school performance. But we are only taking a small fraction of that pool—we get 2000 nominations a year and about 800 applications [for approximately 50 slots]. So in a way, we are cherry-picking. But we don't apologize for it. And we only take a small percentage. People should be cherry-picking in every state.

    Are environmental programs a good way to attract students into STEM fields?

    Pfirman: I see the environment as the liberal science field of this century. It brings together all the disciplines, and you have a problem-solving focus that makes them naturally work together. It also gives students a link to their own lives.

    “I see the environment as the liberal science field of this century. It brings together all the disciplines … and gives students a link to their own lives.” —Stephanie Pfirman, Barnard College


    Pfirman: We try to give them the skills that will allow them to be successful in anything they do, whether they're balancing a checkbook or training to be an environmental economist.

    Goroff: Nature doesn't give us the great problems of the world labeled as physics or chemistry. So we want students to have that broad background. But having an in-depth experience is useful, too.

    Even if students aren't thinking about careers, however, we need to be paying more attention to them, because the opportunity costs to go into a science career are much different than for someone in China or India. We shouldn't be surprised if students are thinking about law school or business school if we haven't paid attention to finding ways of making a science career fulfilling and rewarding—and I'm not just talking about money—without first having to spend 10 years as a graduate student and a postdoc.

    How career-oriented are UMBC students, and does that push them into or out of STEM fields?

    Summers: We have some students who have known since kindergarten that they want to be a medical doctor, and that's fine. But in general, I think we need to be careful about pushing students into careers at too early an age. I know from talking to some of my graduate students from other countries that they are tested and channeled at a very early age into either science or nonscience tracks. I think it's good for students to have the opportunity to get excited by a course or a professor and have a chance to go into science.

    How well are institutions doing in tracking student achievement and what happens to them after graduation?

    Summers: I don't know if there's any real tracking of our general population once they leave. We certainly track those in our Meyerhoff Scholars Program. We know where they are in grad school and their postdocs and when they apply for faculty jobs, because we want to know if we are being successful.

    I don't think we take the same scientific approach to our teaching responsibilities as we do to our research. In research, we are evaluated based on our performance. If we write an NSF or NIH [National Institutes of Health] grant, we have certain objectives, and our peers look at those metrics when they judge our proposals, and later on they ask if we have been successful. Well, a major part of our job is to teach and educate. I don't think it should be mandated from the top. But I think we should approach teaching as we approach our science and think about what's important. If we're not retaining students in our own areas, then we're not doing our jobs.

    “If we're not retaining the students that we're training, then we're in trouble.” —Michael Summers, University of Maryland, Baltimore County


    What does accountability mean at Barnard?

    Pfirman: One thing we do is track our majors, and we invite them back to talk about their careers. But we haven't asked them to reflect on what was it that made them choose a particular career path. We do an exit survey when they leave Barnard, but I think that their perspective a couple of years out would be very valuable.

    We're also trying to understand better what students are learning in their classes. We're working with the Consortium on High Achievement and Success to understand why, for example, minority students might come in with high SATs but then tend to underperform, especially in large introductory courses. One interesting approach is to ask students to come up with a flow chart or a timeline to depict what they are studying, or to reflect on what they have learned. We're doing it in an environmental measurements class, in which students take samples from the Hudson River and analyze them, and it helps me to better evaluate their work.

    What can universities do to make teaching a more attractive option for their STEM students?

    Goroff: I run into STEM students all the time at the best institutions who are passionate about their subjects and who would love to make a career out of teaching. But they have trouble figuring out what a career like that would look like. So I think we need to take some responsibility and think about how these labor markets work and in particular the type of communities that exist to support that goal. In many countries, being a teacher is a very honorable and community-based activity, and teachers get together all the time to improve their craft. But that happens very little in the United States, and that's too bad. There are some programs, like Math for America or Teach for America, where you can see that progression and see how to make it a career.

    Is teaching seen as a successful outcome of the Meyerhoff program, or is it more oriented toward research careers?

    Summers: I think that there is some tension there. We're trying to get our students to feel passionate about science, which involves doing experiments. We brag about our students who go to graduate school at Harvard. So if a student goes into the lab and gets excited about doing research, will they have that opportunity if they decide to go into teaching? Probably not. They will probably have huge teaching loads, and it's not a glamorous or well-paid profession.

    The clinic program at Harvey Mudd is a good example of providing research opportunities for undergraduates. How does it work?

    Goroff: It's a signature program that has been going for more than 40 years, and it allows students to partner with industry or a federal lab or venture capitalists—people who have real problems that they need to find an answer to. The importance of having a client like that really makes a big difference. … We've even turned the program into a global activity, using videoconferencing and e-mail. It not only gets them ready to work in ways that employers and graduate schools appreciate, it also allows students who may not have the highest grade point average to excel as part of a team.

    How do you make sure that they don't become just another pair of hands?

    Goroff: We give away the intellectual property rights, and we're not trying to make money on this. We spend a lot of time working with sponsors to pick problems that will work well for undergraduates, and we explain that sometimes finding out the original idea didn't work can be a tremendously valuable experience—and a tremendous help to the company, too.

    There is continuing pressure on universities to eliminate programs aimed at special populations on the grounds that they discriminate against the majority population. Is that having an impact on the programs that you run?

    Summers: At UMBC, we have had to worry about that a little bit. When the Meyerhoff program began, it was specifically for black males, and then women, and then minorities in general. After the Banneker ruling [in 1994] shut down minority science programs at the University of Maryland, we decided to open up the program to all students who have an interest in diversity issues in the sciences. … If a white student qualifies, they have to decide if they want to do all the outreach and activities that are part of the Meyerhoff program—such as serving as tutors to inner-city minority students in the K-12 system and other monthly activities—or if they would rather take a general merit scholarship from the university. The program is now about 12% Caucasian and 12% to 15% Asian.

    What about at Barnard?

    Pfirman: We are a women's college, so opening it up to all our students just means more women. But I'm also working on a project to advance women faculty, and one thing we've discovered is that programs to help women are also helpful for men. So we've opened up the programs to both men and women, although we tend to get more women.

    How do you extend a program that's existed for decades at one institution to the hundreds or even thousands of schools that might benefit from it?

    Summers: We're trying to do that with a program funded by NIH and HHMI to increase retention rates among underrepresented minorities. We've had three meetings, hosted and attended by institutions that we felt were primed for changed. To participate, each institution first had to do a quantitative assessment of how women and minorities are doing on their campuses. The information wasn't easy to get, and many said they were surprised at how poorly their institutions were doing with respect to the achievement of minorities and women once they saw the numbers. In January, there will be another meeting for the institutions to present the outcomes of things that they have put in place. …

    We call this “taking the show on the road.” If you go to a typical scientific meeting, there might be 15,000 at the meeting. But only about 30 would attend a session on diversity. And they are usually the same people. After spending so much money for so many years trying to increase the number of minority scientists and seeing the number increase from maybe 1% to 2% in the sciences, federal agencies know they have to do things differently. … They have been able to build campfires at some institutions, and the question now is how do you fan the flames.

    “We [need] to erase the myth of a lone genius … and show [students] that science is done in connected communities.” —Daniel Goroff, Harvey Mudd College


    Pfirman: One critical need is to organize the resources and make them accessible. Many of us realize that there are ways to improve teaching, but it's hard to find that information. I know how to find out what's happening with Arctic sea ice, for example, but I don't know how to find the resources I'm looking for in the educational arena. We also need to engage the professional societies. They have these big annual meetings, but it's hard to attract more than the usual suspects to sessions on diversity or education. If there was some way they could elevate the issue, that would be great.

    Why isn't there sufficient national leadership now, and what can people do to make it happen?

    Goroff: I think it's always fashionable in Washington to concentrate on the dollar signs and to think that if we just spend more money, the leaders will appear and the programs will appear. But if you look at what happened to NIH after the doubling of its budget—which was a wonderful thing that is absolutely worthy of our support—what you see is a great deal of this winner-take-all kind of funding schemes and the same people getting more grants. I'd rather see us sending money to people who want to implement some of these good ideas at their institution.

    Summers: When we interview people for a position, some postdocs tell us that their adviser has warned them not to get too involved with undergraduates because they will end up spending too much time on teaching, and that could ruin their career. Faculty at most research institutions are evaluated on the basis of papers published and presentations at meetings and service on review panels. There's a teaching component, but it's not weighted the same. And there's no component at all that addresses mentoring students in your lab.

    What one or two things would you like to see happen in the next 5 to 10 years to improve undergraduate STEM education, and how would you measure it?

    Pfirman: I think it's critical within each of our institutions that we have academic leaders on campus who understand the value of science and math and what resources can make a difference. If more science faculty are willing to step up to those leadership positions, that could make a big difference. We also need to think of our institutions as learning communities and get everybody involved in the learning process.

    Goroff: We've mentioned community many times. And I think that being part of something bigger than oneself is very appealing. If we can dispel the myth of the lone genius working on their own and emphasize the social capital, that would be a step in the right direction. A second contribution would be more data about learning and mentoring.

    Summers: In science, sometimes making the big discovery means being in the right place in the right time. But when it comes to our own disciplines and our students, we're all in the right place at the right time to do something. When a minority student makes a C, rather than thinking, “That's good, they've done all right,” we could bring them in and ask them, “Why didn't you make a B? How can you do better?” If we're not retaining the students that we're training, then we're in trouble.