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REMARKS OF DR. LEO PEZZEMENTI, BIRMINGHAM-SOUTHERN COLLEGE (Senate - July 27, 1990)

[Page: S10899]

Mr. HEFLIN. Mr. President, since I came to the U.S. Senate, I have been a strong supporter of appropriating funds for the National Institutes of Health [NIH]. One program I strongly support, which is sponsored by NIH, is the Academic Research Enhancement Award [AREA] Program, a program currently underfunded.

This program funds research at schools that have not traditionally received NIH funding. Two colleges in my home State of Alabama that have benefited from the program are Auburn University and my alma mater, Birmingham-Southern College.

Throughout our Nation, many undergraduate colleges have received academic research enhancement award grants, and many undergraduate students have been initiated into biomedical research. Many students across America go on to graduate school and embark upon careers in research or medicine after having participated in the AREA Program.

Recently, Dr. Leo Pezzementi, who is an associate professor of biology, delivered a stirring address at a workshop on the Academic Research Enhancement Award Program at the National Institutes of Health outlining the benefits that Birmingham-Southern College and its students have received from this important program.

Dr. Pezzementi's address will be published in the Newsletter of the Council on Undergraduate Research, which is a national organization committed to involving undergraduate students in meaningful research. I ask unanimous consent that the speech by Dr. Leo Pezzementi of Birmingham-Southern College be printed in the Record in its entirety.

There being no objection, the remarks were ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:

NIH Area Program From the Perspective of Undergraduate Research

(BY LEO PEZZEMENTI)

Since 1985, I have taught at Birmingham-Southern College, a small, traditional liberal arts college. Before coming to Birmingham-Southern, I taught as sabbatical replacement for three years at Franklin and Marshall and Oberlin colleges, where I discovered that faculty at small colleges can do scientific research. The science done at small colleges may not be big science, but it can and should be good science. It was at these schools that I also became convinced of the educational importance of research with undergraduate students; that the best way for undergraduates to learn science is for them to become scientists, and that this experience often motivates them to pursue careers in research and education. Now, as a biology councilor of the Council on Undergraduate Research, I have learned that I share these views with many other scientists at small colleges, who see research with undergraduates as serving two complementary purposes--the advancement of science and the education of future scientists.

When I arrived at Birmingham-Southern in 1985, I had a small Research Corporation grant. However, by the end of the summer of 1987, I had expended all of the funds in that grant, and my research on the structure and function of acetylcholinesterase from the lamprey could have come to a stop since, at the time, Birmingham-Southern did not have any on-campus money available for research. Fortunately, the summer before, I wrote an AREA proposal that was funded in full for two years. Later, I asked for and received a one year extension. I was encouraged to write the grant by Dr. Terry Rosenberry at Case Western, a reviewer of a number of AREA proposals, whom I met at Oberlin and who subsequently became a collaborator on the proposal. After receiving the grant, and having trouble getting started because of my teaching load and problems with equipment acquistion, I spent the summer of 1988 in Dr. Rosenberry's laboratory, where I learned many new and valuable techniques for the purification and characterization of acetylcholinesterase (AChE).

While in the laboratory, I also met Dr. Jean-Pierre Toutant. Dr. Toutant has developed an electrophoretic technique for the analysis of the amphiphilicity of AChE, and we have entered into a productive collaboration on the AChE from amphioxus. Dr. Toutant developed this technique in the laboratory of Dr. Jean Massoulie at l'Ecole Normale Superierure, and at the end of the summer, I asked if it might be possible for me to spend a sabbatical year in Dr. Massoulies laboratory to learn how to use the techniques of molecular biology to study AChE. At the urging of Dr. Toutant, I wrote to Dr. Massoulie who agreed and suggested that I write for a NIH-French CNRS fellowship. Armed with preliminary results from the tenure of my AREA grant, I wrote a successful fellowship proposal and will be spending the 1990-1991 academic year in Paris. Also, as a result of the work that I have done under my AREA grant, I will be an invited speaker at the Third International Meeting on Cholinesterase in La Grande Motte, France, this May. Thus, the AREA program has enabled me to become a member of the international scientific community working on AChE.

Since my AREA grant expires this summer, and I was advised not to apply for an NIH RO1 grant to begin while I was out of the country, I have written an NSF-RUI proposal to use a combination of biochemical, pharmacological and molecular biological approaches to study AChE from some primitive species. In this grant, I ask for $120,000 worth of equipment, and to keep the requested amount within the budgetary guidelines suggested by the NSF, Birmingham-Southern has agreed to provide $51,000 or 42% of this amount. If my ARA grant had not allowed me to establish myself as a productive scientist in my field, I don't think that the college would have made this commitment.

The AREA grant that I received has made other indirect contributions to the science and research environment at Birmingham-Southern. I certainly do not want to attribute all the changes that have taken place to my acquisition of a single grant, because a number of factors have been involved, with the AREA grant being just one of them. Nevertheless, shortly after I received my grant the college initiated a modest summer research grant program. Also, in the past three years, the college has hired three new faculty members in the chemistry department, and I am told that my success has motivated them and others in biology to write proposals. In the five years before I received my AREA grant, the college received one major grant in the sciences; since 1987, the college has received five major grants with four others pending for scientific research, equipment, and education. These and other
developments have attracted the attention of administration, and the college is now constructing an addition to the science building, which will house laboratories primarily for chemistry and physics, but also for cell molecular biology. The facility will also have laboratories designated specifically for undergraduate research students.

In the eight years that I have taught at small liberal arts colleges, I have had thirteen undergraduates work with me for at least a semester or a summer. Five of these students have worked with me during the tenure of my AREA grant. Of the thirteen students, seven are coauthors on papers, because they have made significant contributions to the work. More importantly, of the ten who have graduated, four went on to graduate school in the biomedical sciences, and three went on to medical school. Now, students at the college are interested in my work; two are working in my lab for credit, and one has written a grant proposal to Sigma Xi for a modest project that he conceived. I have asked for funds for eight undergraduate students in my NSF-RUI grant to ensure the education of undergraduates remains an integral part of my research effort. The college is also seriously considering stipends for undergraduate research students.

Thus, the AREA program has had a very positive effect on me, my institution, and my students, and I am very thankful. However, it is stated in the AREA Program guidelines that these grants will allow principal investigators to conduct `preliminary research studies preparatory to seeking more substantial funding through other traditional NIH grant mechanisms'. In this respect, the program does not appear to have been completely successful. NIH statistics show that only 15 of the 381 AREA grant recipients in the first three years of the program have gone on to receive RO1 grants. It has been suggested that two years is not enough time to collect the data necessary for a competitive RO1 proposal, and the NIH has responded to this suggestion by lengthening the duration of the grants from two to three years. It has also been suggested that the yearly budgets of the grants be increased so that technicians could be hired to maintain continuity and productivity in the laboratory. Teaching loads at liberal arts colleges are often high, and undergraduates are quite unprepared and transient; thus, working with undergraduates can resemble starting up a new lab every year. A full-time technician could help smooth the transition. I think that both of these suggestions are good ideas and already have or would improve the situation. However, it occurred to me that the pressure to mainstream might actually be undermining one of the major goals of undergraduate research--the training of future scientists--exactly at a time when such development is becoming crucial. This training is best accomplished when the student and the teacher work together. When this requirement is considered along with the constraints mentioned above, it seems obvious that the pace of research at undergraduate colleges will be slow, making it difficult for those of us who are committed to teaching and research to compete for funding with faculty at research-intensive universities.

[Page: S10900]


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