IMPRINT: Reaching for the STARS

In the mid-1990s, Marc Muskavitch, then a Biology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, proposed a radical idea: create a program that would place incoming freshman students in faculty labs. Thousands of junior and senior level students find their way into faculty labs, but at the time, the concept of a freshman being ready for research was unheard-of.

The university had announced the Strategic Directions Initiative, an internal competition for grant money to support innovative programs; Muskavitch wrote a proposal and received $136,000 for a three-year trial.

The next step was to involve a group of faculty members representing science and mathematics departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, to serve as mentors for the students. Muskavitch was persuasive, and a core group of faculty signed on. “If you put intelligent, motivated young people in strong environments, they can become strong researchers,” he says.

Thus was born the IU Science, Technology, and Research Scholars program (IU STARS), the first program in the nation to create a clear pathway for first-year college students to get hands-on research experience. “Young scientists deserve the chance to find out early if research interests them,” says Dennis Peters, the Herman T. Briscoe Professor of Chemistry.

By any measure, the program is a rousing success.

Jeremy Brown“I cannot overemphasize the importance of my under-graduate involvement in a research lab through STARS in developing my career as a scientist. The STARS program was a major factor in my decision to come to IU,” says Jeremy Brown (right). Brown earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology in 2002. Muskavitch was his first faculty mentor; he later moved into Professor Edmund Brodie’s lab and completed an honors thesis.

“The STARS program had a snowball effect on my research career, eventually allowing me to find a faculty position in a very tough job market,” Brown says

Today, between 15 and 20 students are accepted into the STARS program each year. While some of the details of the program have changed over time, the primary goals remain the same. The program provides students with:

  • Four years of laboratory research and mentoring by a leading faculty scientist.
  • Participation in the annual IU STARS Research Symposium.
  • The chance for summer research stipends — a boon to both the students who earn them and the faculty members who get additional time with the students.

A perfect constellation: Professor Ellen Ketterson, far left at her field study station with: (from left) graduate student Liz Carlton (who works with Prof. Greg Demas and who collaborates with the Ketterson lab); alumna Elizabeth Schultz, a former STARS participant and Gill Scholar who is enrolled in a Ph.D. program in animal behavior at the University of California - Davis; Meelyn Pandit, a current undergraduate STARS student; and Dustin Reichard, a current Ph.D. student in the Ketterson lab The four students are each holding a different subspecies of dark-eyed junco.

As Good as Goldwater

Yves BrunBiology Professor Yves Brun (left) is in constant demand as a STARS mentor, and for very good reason. He is a leading researcher who made headlines a few years ago with his lab’s discovery of “nature’s strongest glue,” a naturally occurring substance excreted by a bacterium called Caulobacter crescentus. A native of Canada whose first language is French, Brun is a popular teacher. His lab accommodates a wide range of students, from freshmen through post-doctoral scientists. And no fewer than four undergraduate students who have worked in his lab have won the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship.

Established by Congress in 1986, the goal is to provide a continuing source of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Competition for the Goldwater Scholarship is exceptionally intense.

David LarsonAn alumnus of IU STARS, David Larson (left) (BS 2003) is a senior scientist at the Genome Center at Washington University in St. Louis. “A lot of the credit goes to Yves. He was a great mentor. He gave us lots of freedom to explore the science we were pursuing and gain intellectual independence.”

Mark WortingerMark Wortinger (right) joined the Brun lab in the summer of ‘95, just after his freshman year. He stayed on through 1999, when he completed a Master’s degree in Microbiology. He has just completed 10 years at Eli Lilly and Co. as an associate biologist and was recently promoted to the highest associate position — Consultant Biologist.

“I decided to make research biology my career based on my experiences in Yves’ lab,” Wortinger says.

Aaron DeLougheryAaron DeLoughery (left) is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University. “It was a great experience working with Yves Brun at IU. His mentorship shaped my interests in biology and prepared me for graduate school,” he says.

Ellen WeinzapfelBrun’s most recent protégé to win the Goldwater, Ellen Weinzapfel (right), is at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, pursuing a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology.

So what is Brun’s secret? In typically modest fashion, he grins and paraphrases Herman B Wells: “Hire the best people and get out of their way.”