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Cultivating a generation that values science

Just as non-musicians savor the strains of a Beethoven symphony, UW-Madison biochemist Richard Amasino believes that non-scientists can appreciate the role of science in their lives.

“We’d make better decisions as a society if we understood science better,” says Amasino, a professor of biochemistry.

Now Amasino has a new opportunity to address that goal, thanks to his new appointment as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor. Amasino plans to use his appointment and the $1 million grant that comes with it to develop a new line of plant mutants and educational material to teach genetic principles to K–12 students – and, he hopes, help cultivate a generation that values science.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute medical research organization is dedicated to discovering and disseminating knowledge in the basic life sciences. HHMI professors are leading research scientists who, through their teaching and mentoring, are striving to ignite the scientific spark for a new generation of students.

Amasino is one of 20 scientists nationwide who were awarded the designation this spring.

For this project Amasino will work with Brassica rapa, a plant suited for teaching because of its rapid life cycle. He intends to develop new strains of the plant with new mutants and the ability to self-pollinate. He envisions using the plants to teach the fundamentals of genetics to kindergarten through high-school students.

“I’ve always been concerned about science education, and making it better,” says Amasino. “At one level, science education should be a lot of fun, but unless you have the right materials and teachers with the right knowledge, it isn’t always something students enjoy.”

“When I see dedicated teachers who don”t understand science, I look in the mirror and wonder how scientists can do a better job of helping them.”

“If there is one group I could target, it would be the people who won”t become scientists, because as a society we”d make better decisions if more people appreciated science and enjoyed it. I love music, although I’m not a musician. That”s what I want for science – and to get there, we need help in terms of education.”