Florida Atlantic University is hoping to become home to some of the top young scientists in the United States.
The university is partnering with the Max Planck Society, the Germany-based biotech research giant, to create a South Florida pipeline for future scientists who can help develop cures and treatments for ailments such as Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, schizophrenia, autism, and epilepsy.
They’re planning to do it with an undergraduate honors program they say is the first of its kind in the world. It will begin in the fall and start with about 100 students, officials said.
“I’m really concerned about the future of science, so it’s important to train the next generation of scientists,” said David Fitzpatrick, CEO and scientific director of Max Planck Florida ” “To be able to take young minds and bring them into an environment where they can participate and engage with Max Planck scientists is a fantastic opportunity.”
Max Planck, which houses its U.S. research on FAU’s Jupiter campus, currently works with FAU graduate students. This will be the first time it will work with undergraduate students, officials said.
FAU officials announced the program Monday at an event on the main Boca Raton campus, featuring Max Planck leaders from the U.S. and the headquarters in Germany.
The program will recruit the “best of the best” high school students who are National Merit Finalists or take college-level classes while in high school, FAU officials said. That includes students at the university’s own FAU High School, which allows students to receive three years of college credit by the time they graduate high school.
Ajay Desai, a junior at FAU High, said he plans to study neuroscience and is considering the new program.
“One of the reasons FAU High is here is to give exceptional students more opportunities to fulfill whatever they want to do in their lives and careers, and I think this program is another step forward for FAU, and a good option for anyone who wants to do neuroscience,” said Desai.
He said he’s been impressed by Max Planck’s efforts at “making new advancements in medicine and science that at the end of the day only benefit the community.”
FAU already has an honors college serving about 400 students on the Jupiter campus, but it has traditionally focused more on liberal arts students. The university has been looking for a way to provide an honors program for students studying science, which has become more of a focus on the Jupiter campus in recent years.
The university also has been looking for ways to attract more high-caliber students and better leverage its partnership with Max Planck and Scripps Florida, the other biotech giant on its campus. Although dozens of science faculty have been hired or relocated from the Boca Raton campus in recent years, the students haven’t followed.
The Jupiter campus serves about 1,100 degree-seeking students,half as many as a decade ago. That’s not what was envisioned when Palm Beach County and FAU spent a total of $856 million to lure The Scripps Research Institute in 2004 and the Max Planck Society in 2009. The idea was to create a bustling campus with numerous students working shoulder-to-shoulder with scientists, FAU officials say.
The university has recruited some top researchers to Jupiter, including Randy Blakely, a neuroscience professor from Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He arrived a year ago and brought with him about $8 million in federal research dollars.
He’s studying brain functions, in hopes of advancing treatment of depression, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other medical conditions.
FAU also hopes to upgrade its facilities with a state-of-the-art science building that would provide about 25 additional labs for students and researchers.
FAU officials see this as another way to transform the campus and FAU as a whole.
“This program is like no other in the world for undergraduate research quality and will propel our national and international visibility,” FAU President John Kelly said. “Our goal is to be fastest improving university in the country. The way you do that is to partner with some of the best entities in the world, and Max Planck is certainly that.”