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Biology's Darcy Kelley Awarded $1 Million Grant to Bring Creativity into the Lab

Darcy Kelley

Darcy Kelley, professor of biological sciences and co-director of the Doctoral Subcommittee in Neurobiology and Behavior, believes her mission as a teacher is to show students that science is cool. As one of 20 newly named Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professors, Kelley is receiving a $1 million grant over four years to do just that.

"I feel very strongly that students in general don't get to experience the excitement of science when they come to college," says Kelley. "Our aim is to introduce all the kids to cutting edge science and give them all the analytical skills -- what an experiment is, how you build a model. We want to enlarge the constituency of scientists. Rather than have students shrink from science, we want to show them how cool it is. Our hope is that they will want to go into research."

As part of the grant project, Kelley is working with Columbia Astromony Professors David Helfand and Jacqueline van Gorkom in creating a new course in science that is being piloted for potential inclusion in the core curriculum. The course will include lectures and discussion sections led by graduate students on topics such as the dark matter, the origins of life and how the brain works. Several topics from the course will also be presented as the Frontiers of Science lecture series in Miller Theatre, which is open to the public. On Mon., Nov. 11, Kelley will present a public lecture entitled "How Your Brain Works (Or Not!), at 8:00 p.m. (Click for more information on the public lectures which are free with CU ID.)

Kelley is also involved in the design a course geared towards biology majors -- most of whom will head to careers in clinical medicine -- that will teach how clinical trials are designed and analyzed.

"As future doctors - and future patients -- our majors are going to be making important decisions based on the results of clinical trials," says Kelley. Learning how to critically evaluate this new evidence-based medicine is something that we can begin with our advanced undergraduates. We are hoping to tap into the strong clinical interests of our students as a means to teach essential intellectual tools such as statistical analysis".

Editor of the Journal of Neurobiology, Kelley studies the biological origins of sexual differences, and in particular the actions of the gonadal steroid hormones androgen and estrogen. Her studies focus on the vocal behaviors of the South African clawed frog, which uses its repertoire of songs to signal receptivity and unreceptivity, dominance and territoriality (Click for a more complete description of research in her laboratory).

"I decided it would be a lot of fun to work on vocal communication behaviors -- the songs males and females sing to one another," she says.

Inspired by renowned biologist and former Columbia professor Thomas Hunt Morgan, a major focus of Kelley's lab has been setting up a project to study the genetic underpinnings of perception and production of song in the frog. As an HHMI Professor, she will be working with teams of undergraduates to develop a new genetic model system for the neurobiology of behavior, the frog Xenopus tropicalis.

"Research is advancing at a breathtaking pace, but many university students are still learning science the same old way, by listening to lectures, memorizing facts and doing cookbook lab experiments that thousands have done before," says HHMI President Thomas R. Cech. "We want to empower scientists at research universities to become more involved in breaking the mold and bringing the excitement of research to science education."

Kelley is Columbia's first Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor. The appointments were announced by the Maryland-based biomedical research institute on Sept. 18.

Published: Sep 20, 2002
Last modified: Sep 20, 2002

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