Scientific sparks

Armed with $1M, chemist will take students on a journey of discovery

David Walt, the Robinson Professor of Chemistry at Tufts, has been named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) professor—a distinction for which he will receive a $1 million grant to impart the thrill of scientific discovery to his students.

David Walt © MELODY KO

The awards, given to 20 leading researchers nationwide, follow a search at 100 leading research universities to find those “who, through their teaching and mentoring, are striving to ignite the scientific spark in a new generation of students.”

The Walt Laboratory at Tufts is world-renowned for its pioneering work that applies micro and nanotechnology to urgent biological problems—including the analysis of genetic variation and the behavior of single cells—as well as the practical application of arrays to the detection of explosives, chemical warfare agents and food and waterborne pathogens.

“Our laboratory investigates new ways to measure things,” Walt said. “We create very small arrays containing thousands of features—10,000 features can easily fit on the head of a pin. Researchers in the laboratory use these arrays to study fundamental aspects of biochemistry, genetics, cell biology and olfaction, and they also develop practical ways to measure such things as water and air contamination.”

While Walt is at the forefront of scientific innovation, he believes that the excitement that characterizes real-world science is often lacking in the classroom. As an HHMI professor, he said he will use the $1 million grant to infuse undergraduate and K-12 curricula with the excitement of scientific discovery. “My program is designed to bring the joy of research to undergraduates,” he said.

No recipes here
In what Walt calls a “discovery-based” program, students will not be given “recipes” that require them to replicate others’ research. “That’s boring, and it’s not how scientific research works,” he said.

Instead, they will tackle real-world problems for which scientists are still seeking solutions. “Students might decide how to determine a genetic diagnosis of everyone in the class,” Walt said. “We can perform a laboratory analysis of an individual’s blood to test for hundreds of thousands of things. This procedure would cost thousands of dollars today and require a $250,000 instrument. How can we take that kind of capability out of the lab and into the high school or college classroom?”

Over the next four years, Walt is hoping his new programs will attract undergraduates who traditionally do not pursue experimental science and also underscore the importance of integrating fields such as chemistry, biology and engineering. “For example, our lab’s research with living cell arrays generates huge amounts of data,” he said. “I want to enlist Tufts computer science majors to apply contemporary methods for analyzing complex biological data and to prepare them for continued studies and work in the bioinformatics area.”

Stoking the pipeline
Almost 20 years ago, Walt started conducting chemistry demonstrations in his children’s schools. He gradually transitioned that outreach program to his Tufts students. “Many of my students have told me that this outreach experience was the most exciting thing they ever did at Tufts,” he said.

So it’s not surprising that Walt also plans to use his HHMI grant to mobilize undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral associates to reach out to K-12 students. “Undergraduates and K-12 students will learn the excitement of working at the cutting edge of the chemistry/biology interface and will gain direct knowledge about contemporary research methods as well as the ethical and societal issues surrounding the use of genetic analysis technologies,” he said.

Walt also wants his work to boost the flow in the “scientific pipeline.” The United States is “training one-tenth the number of science Ph.D.s as China is,” he said. “I’m at the stage in my career where I feel it’s important to contribute to helping the health of the scientific enterprise.”