UCSB’s Biology Dept. recently received a $1 million grant to fund innovative undergraduate research.

The endowment, which aids science education research, is part of a $70 million donation distributed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to 50 research universities nationwide. The university will use the gift to purchase new laboratory equipment and fund original undergraduate research on the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans — a widely used model organism in scientific research studies.

Professor and Chair of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Dept. Joel Rothman said the grant couldn’t have come at a better time. According to Rothman, the research equipment currently provided for UCSB’s undergraduate biology students is antiquated and inadequate.

“Students are very aware that government funding has been slashed and tuition does not cover all the expenses our university faces,” he said. “Lab courses have definitely suffered from insufficient funds. The equipment is twice as old as our students.”

MCDB Associate Professor Rolf Christoffersen said the grant will help to further distinguish UCSB as a prominent research university.

“This opportunity differentiates our school … from a school without much research,” Christoffersen said. “This grant allows us to bring concentrated research down to the introductory biology level.”

Furthermore, Christoffersen said he is elated that students now have the opportunity to study a creature that could provide insight into the genetics of complex mammals.

“Study of the roundworm is not just done to figure out how worms live,” he said. “It is to discover things that are generally true about dogs, humans and everything else in between. These students will contribute to biomedical science. No one knows what the outcome of their projects will be.”

Furthermore, Rothman said, the new funding allows the 600-800 undergraduate students enrolled in the university’s pre-biology courses to participate in a new program. The goal of the program, conveniently known as the Large-scale Undergraduate Research Experience, or L.U.R.E., is to “lure” introductory biology students into the world of pioneering research and discovery.

“[Innovative research] is very unusual for a lab course in a college setting,” Rothman said. “Everyone usually knows the answers and the students are not getting the experience of original discovery. We want to incorporate research experience throughout the undergraduate biology experience.”