AUSTIN, Texas — Three University of Texas at Austin professors have been selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to join the ranks of a select group of world-class scientist educators known as HHMI Professors. They will receive a combined $2.5 million to support their ongoing efforts to improve undergraduate education. UT Austin is the only institution to have three awardees among this year’s 14 winners, selected from more than 200 applicants across the country.
College of Natural Sciences professors Eric Anslyn and Andrew Ellington, as well as Jackson School of Geosciences professor Julia Clarke, are the first UT Austin faculty members to be selected for the program. Anslyn and Ellington will share a five-year, $1.5 million collaborative award. Clarke will receive a five-year, $1 million award.
Including this year’s awardees, the HHMI Professors Program has appointed 69 scientists since it was established in 2002. The program creates a network of outstanding and highly visible research scientists who want to bring their creativity to designing new programs to transform undergraduate science education.
“These scientists are highly engaged and at the top of their respective fields,” HHMI President Robert Tjian said. “By integrating the same creativity and tenacity that they employ in their own research, HHMI professors foster a melting pot of innovation and science that invigorates undergraduate science education.”
Clarke is the John A. Wilson Professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences and a Provost’s Teaching Fellow. Her research focuses on integrating paleontological data from fossils and the anatomy of living animals to elucidate evolutionary innovations that occur in deep time. Her recent discovery of the oldest known vocal organ of a bird has important implications for understanding the evolution of vocal behavior. She works beyond disciplinary bounds to identify new questions about major transitions in the history of life. She is a 2016 Humboldt Prize winner.
Clarke’s “Curiosity to Question” program focuses on developing design thinking through project-based research. Through her course of the same name and a new international summer program, UT Austin undergraduate students will have a supportive context to develop and execute their own interdisciplinary projects. A Texas-focused Geoscience Ambassadors program establishes a mentorship framework for minority and first-generation students and empowers them to present their research and undergraduate experiences at high schools in their home communities.
Both Anslyn and Ellington are faculty leaders in the College of Natural Sciences’ award-winning undergraduate STEM research program, the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI). Anslyn, a chemistry professor and the Welch Regents Chair, studies the physical and bioorganic chemistry of synthetic and natural receptors and molecular recognition. His work has allowed for rapid identification and optimization of chiral catalysts used in pharmaceuticals and pesticides. His previous honors include the Edward Leete Award from the American Chemical Society and the Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award.
Ellington, the Fraser Professor of Biochemistry in the Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology, and a National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellow, works on synthetic biology and biotechnology. His lab develops organisms with novel genetic codes, and it develops nucleic acid circuitry for point-of-care diagnostics. He is currently developing simple paper-based tests for a variety of diseases and environmental conditions including Ebola, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and water contamination.
Anslyn and Ellington will apply their grant to establish a unique professional and entrepreneurial training experience for undergraduate and graduate chemistry and biochemistry majors. Building on existing programs such as the FRI, the proposed career tracks will help to improve entry of undergraduates into professional schools and the corporate world. In this program, UT students are already working on practical solutions to a wide range of problems, such as monitoring a person’s keyboard typing for the early detection of Parkinson’s disease and using DNA tags to map aquifers.
While Ansyln, Clarke and Ellington are the first HHMI Professors from UT, they bring to five the number of UT Austin professors who have been named HHMI scientists in recent years. They join HHMI Investigator Tanya Paull, a professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences; and HHMI Faculty Scholar Ila Fiete, an associate professor in the Department