Microbiologist Mary M. Allen works with Wellesley College undergraduates unraveling the mysteries of cyanobacteria, perhaps the oldest oxygen-producing organisms on earth. "There's no middleman in our laboratories—no postdocs or graduate students between me and my students," says Allen. For decades, Wellesley has produced more scientists than all but a handful of other liberal arts colleges.
When Allen joined the Wellesley faculty in 1968, she marveled at how much time colleagues spent with undergraduates. "I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It was just fantastic," she recalls.
The faculty-student collaboration process at Wellesley requires patience. "The undergraduates take three years to do what a postdoc probably could do in a year, but the quality is the same," says Allen, a past president of the Council on Undergraduate Research. Three of her students became Beckman Scholars—recipients of $17,600 scholarships from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation for research over two summers and the senior year. In interviews, three Wellesley graduates and a senior spoke about their mentor.
Keren Lisa Witkin '98 graduated this spring from UC Berkeley with a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology. She didn't envision a career in science when she entered Wellesley, "but in my first year I took 'Intro to Cell Biology' and loved it." The summers in Allen's lab were "a lot of fun," Witkin recalls. "We were a tight group. Mary was always encouraging." She calls Allen "a phenomenal mentor."
Witkin wrote her undergraduate thesis on heat-shock response in cyanobacteria, and she and Allen presented a poster on that work at the VI Cyanobacterial Workshop in Pacific Grove, California, in July 1998.
"That was one of the best parts about doing research as an undergraduate," Witkin says. "It was very unusual to go to meetings with undergraduates. Mary took two of us. We got to present our research in front of all these real scientists. The experience was amazing."
Jean Jing Huang '01 arrived at Wellesley knowing she wanted to study biology. "I had great mentors in a public elementary school in Brookline, Massachusetts. A friend and I won the science fair in sixth grade," she says. "We developed a test for lead in paint, and we went around town testing the paint in the library and other places."
Huang worked in Allen's lab during the summer after freshman year, looking at acid shock. Allen "was there when I needed help, but she wasn't telling me what to do. That was the best part, because I developed confidence," says Huang. The students even had keys to the lab, allowing them to work with a buddy late at night and on weekends.
"This project was very forgiving," she says. "I tried a lot of experiments. I'd take a course and learn about some technique, then try it with the cyanobacteria. Since we weren't looking for any one result, it could develop in all these different, interesting ways. We used NMR [nuclear magnetic resonance] spectrometers and all sorts of instruments, and we collaborated with other labs on campus." Huang, who became Allen's first Beckman Scholar, wound up presenting a paper at a microbiology conference in Barcelona and was the lead author of a paper published in the Archives of Microbiology.
"I really saw the best of what science was all about at Wellesley," says Huang, a third-year graduate student in biology at the California Institute of Technology. "The only model I saw was a successful professor." [HHMI, recognizing that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows may also serve as mentors, supports programs that train them in teaching as well as research at both colleges and universities.]