Biology professors Beth Shapiro and Erika Zavaleta won HHMI funding for their innovative science education proposals

December 13, 2017 • By Tim Stephens

Erika Zavaleta (photo by Matt Kroll)

Beth Shapiro, PhD, University of California, Santa Cruz

Beth Shapiro (photo by C. Lagattuta)

With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), biologists at UC Santa Cruz will be using biodiversity surveys and field research to get more students engaged in science.

Beth Shapiro and Erika Zavaleta, both professors of ecology and evolutionary biology, are among a select group of innovators in science education chosen this year for funding through the HHMI Professors Program.

Zavaleta’s proposal won her a five-year, $1 million grant to create an inclusive and coordinated pathway that will engage students in ecology and conservation biology and support them all the way through to graduation. The program will provide increased access to research-based field courses and internships, along with sustained mentoring and a supportive community.

“We have so many awesome field courses at UCSC, and I want to make sure they’re accessible to a full range of students and link them together into a pathway that will launch a diverse new generation of conservation leaders,” Zavaleta said.

Environmental DNA

Shapiro teamed up with Robert Wayne, a molecular ecologist at UCLA, to win a collaborative award of $1.5 million for a program to get large numbers of students involved in biodiversity surveys using environmental DNA. Environmental DNA (eDNA) is a highly sensitive molecular approach for cataloging biodiversity in any ecosystem by analyzing the DNA fragments found in soil and other environmental samples.

“Environmental DNA is both a powerful tool for doing cutting-edge science and a great way to get people interested in science,” Shapiro said. “It’s fairly easy for a first experience, and yet the range of questions you can address is incredibly broad. It’s a gateway to all kinds of different science.”

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