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News & Stories: 2007-08

Calvin Establishes Integrated Science Research Institute
April 22, 2008

Students in a science lab at CalvinCalvin College is launching a new science institute funded by a $1.1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Calvin’s Integrated Science Research Institute (ISRI) is being created in recognition of the current trend in the sciences to work across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Research across boundaries

"You can’t be just a biologist to solve the big problems. You can’t be just a chemist or a mathematician. What is required is to put together a team with various areas of expertise to solve a problem,” said Calvin biology professor David DeHeer, the chair of the committee that envisioned ISRI. “Calvin has already established a solid educational foundation in disciplinary sciences. The next step is to build on that foundation by bringing education and research in those eight departments together.”

The ISRI will allow Calvin to foster collaboration in the sciences through research, faculty development, curriculum innovation and outreach.


The new institute will fund 36 students and their faculty mentors to undertake 15-month— two summers and an academic year—research projects that cross scientific boundaries. The students will be expected to both publish and present their research, and they will participate in a special undergraduate research symposium at the Van Andel Research Institute (VARI).

The new 15-month research opportunity significantly augments an already thriving summer research program in the sciences, said DeHeer: “This will increase our number of student researchers by almost 60 percent, to about 100 each summer. National studies have shown that research participation is the very best way for undergraduates to learn science.”

The expanded opportunities presented by the ISRI will also allow students to qualify for the program based on indicators other than grades and test scores. “We plan to use nontraditional as well as traditional indicators that will allow us to identify a larger pool of candidates for research opportunities,” DeHeer explained.

Faculty development

The new institute will develop faculty research clusters drawn from a variety of disciplines. “We’ve got to train our faculty so they’re thinking in interdisciplinary terms,” said DeHeer. To promote cross-divisional collaboration, the ISRI will hire an expert in computational science, a growing field that applies the concepts of mathematics and computer science to traditional sciences. The faculty research clusters will also take part in reading groups that study across disciples and in interdisciplinary workshops.

Curriculum innovation

To promote cross-divisional scientific thinking within the Calvin curriculum, the ISRI will create a new integrated science minor, comprised of at least six courses with an interdisciplinary emphasis. “We want to credential our students who are going on to graduate school in interdisciplinary science,” said DeHeer. “This minor is an innovation that we haven’t seen at our peer institutions.”


To preach the gospel of interdisciplinary science beyond the Calvin campus, the ISRI will establish a High School Apprentice Program. The new summer program will bring students from local high schools to research alongside Calvin faculty and students. “They will learn lab techniques; they will be trained on sophisticated equipment; they will sit in research meetings,” said DeHeer. “We want these students to discover whether or not they like research—always the big question—and to see the kinds of opportunities there are for them in research as part of their college education.”

A companion program will bring teams of in-service teachers from local high schools during the summer to train them in interdisciplinary science. “The goal is to motivate these teachers to do interdisciplinary activities in their own classrooms,” DeHeer said.

Visualization and modeling laboratory

The most tangible component of the ISRI will be a visualization and modeling laboratory, whose focus will be computational science. The laboratory will allow faculty and student teams drawn from all of the scientific disciplines to model problems and research questions  using computer simulations and visualizations.

"We’re hoping to build 3-D visualizations that you can then walk around in,” said Calvin professor of computer science Joel Adams. “Imagine you put on glasses, and, suddenly, you're in a 3-D virtual world with a giant model of DNA or some other complex molecule hanging in the air in front of you. You can walk around the molecule and interact with it by touching it.  That's the sort of thing we hope to be able to do in this new lab.”

The director of the ISRI, Randall Pruim is excited about the challenges presented by new institute: “The main challenge is bring together all of the people who have ideas and find time to allow them to realize their ideas,” Pruim said. “We’re looking for ways to make changes to the curriculum at Calvin that will help our students more easily cross over disciplinary boundaries.”

Pioneering interdisciplinary science

The ISRI is the latest effort by Calvin to promote interdisciplinary science. In 2003, and again in 2007, the college received three-year, $60,000 grants from the Merck/AAAS Undergraduate Science Research Program to promote collaborative research between the disciplines of biology and chemistry.

More recently, the college earned a three-year $77,000 grant from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation to establish the Beckman Scholars Program; the new program offers students intensive, 15-month interdisciplinary research opportunities in biology, chemistry and biochemistry.

The $1.1 million grant that funds the ISRI at Calvin is part of $60 million the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is giving to 48 undergraduate institutions around the nation to develop innovative ways to teach science.

"It’s an honor to be invited to apply,” said DeHeer. “The HHMI does not accept unsolicited proposals.” This is Calvin’s third grant from HHMI. The college was awarded its first in 1992 and the second in 2000.  

~written by Communications and Marketing senior writer Myrna Anderson

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