Biology chair Amy Cheng Vollmer says that Swarthmore faculty are "willing to park their egos at the door" and see their success in their students' triumphs. Physics professor Carl Grossman agrees. "We've developed a culture of making sure our students have research experiences," says Grossman. He chooses experiments for his nonlinear-optics research lab "that combine entry-level work and get students thinking about what they can do in graduate school."
Two recent physics majors were able to extend that thinking on Rhodes scholarships. Matthew Landreman '03 spent two college summers in labs at the University of Minnesota and the Santa Fe Institute, courtesy of the NSF's Research Experience for Undergraduates program; his next two summers were spent in the spheromak (plasma ring) lab of Swarthmore plasma-physics professor Michael R. Brown. Now at Oxford, Landreman remembers not only exciting experiments in the lab, but also "a great number of excellent barbeques" at Brown's home. "I got to know other faculty well, even those with whom I never had a class," he says.
Jacob J. Krich '00 is pursing a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard, after three years studying mathematics during his Oxford sojourn. Krich's mentor was physics professor Peter Collings, who has done pioneering work in liquid crystals. "He explained advanced concepts of physics to me in a wonderful, patient manner," Krich recalls. "He was always a bright spot in the lab. Peter helped me through the hard parts and got me farther than either of us expected." Krich won an Apker Award from the American Physical Society for physics undergraduate research.
Even students who ace advanced placement science are encouraged to take one of the introductory biology courses, if only to hone an ability to write lab reports as though they were being submitted to the journals Cell or Nature. They also do this lab work in groups, says Vollmer, "because complex science problems are solved by teams rather than by single people."
The cutthroat competition often found on college campuses, especially in courses frequented by premeds, is less evident at Swarthmore, says cell biologist Elizabeth A. Vallen: "The kids here are driven internally, but they are amazingly kind and helpful to each other." Not once has a student asked Vallen if a topic covered in class would be on an exam.
"Students get excited any time I talk about what the end of knowledge is," says neurobiologist Kathleen Siwicki. "Our students sense that there's plenty of interesting science to be done"—in her own lab, for example, where she works with Drosophila melanogaster, or fruit flies. "We study learning and memory, and changes in the brain that are responsible for changes in behavior. We're working at a slower pace, naturally, because the students have lots of other commitments and don't work full-time in the lab," says Siwicki. "The most exciting part of the teaching experience here are those afternoons in seminar. The students select the papers and literature they want to read. Something goes on in those seminars that empowers them to think of themselves as scientists."
Several of Siwicki's students paid tribute to their mentor at the most recent Darwin's birthday party, an annual biology department event, by decorating cupcakes with icing that depicted two Drosophila a-courting.
FRUITS OF RESEARCH
To other institutions wishing to emulate Swarthmore's success at grooming scientists, President Bloom urges them to hire faculty "who treasure the work with undergraduates, and to change the criteria for promotion and tenure so that inspired teaching is rewarded."
Too often, the value of such teaching "is discounted as contrary to the seriousness of a research institution," says Bloom.
Five honors seniors bring their slides one morning to summarize their projects for a visitor. Seeta Sistla plans to pursue a Ph.D., while Stephanie Cross, Emily Ford, Matthew Goldstein, and Renuka Nayak aim to acquire joint M.D.-Ph.D. degrees.
"I'll be over 35 before my first job," says Cross, one of the cupcake decorators. "I knew from the start that I wanted to do biology. But there's a passion here at Swarthmore. It's in the professors and students."
Ford worked with biology professor Colin Purrington on a study of the evolutionary bias of handedness in twining vines; 90 percent of vines advance in a counter-clockwise manner.
In a Stanford lab last summer, Goldstein studied the potential of statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) to suppress proliferation of T cell lymphoma. He is also a left-handed pitcher with a close-to-90-miles-per-hour fastball who cocaptained the Swarthmore baseball squad.
Nayak said studying Drosophila (fruit flies) "helped me see how research is done. It's all about asking questions. I came in really shy. Research has given me more confidence."
Seeta Sistla, of Albany, New York, arrived intending to major in philosophy but was converted by Bio 1 and 2. She hopes to publish with Purrington and plant physiologist Mark Jacobs (now dean of Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University) results of her research on plant vascular regeneration.
Photo: David Graham
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
Summer 2004, pages 10-21.
©2004 Howard Hughes Medical Institute