Science with a Twist
Dusty Whittemore ’01 (pictured at left) was born and raised in a town so small that he could count the classmates in his graduating class on the fingers of one hand. When it came to choosing where he wanted to go to college, he realized the answer wasn’t a huge university with classes twice the size of his own hometown. That led him to Saint Mary’s College, where he majored in physics.
Now in Boulder, Colo., where he is a senior manager in a division of PerkinElmer that builds imaging systems for small animal medical research, Whittemore grew up in Cantwell, Alaska (population 150). He shared a log cabin with his parents and 17 sled dogs. That’s a lot of dogs, but then, his father ran the famed 1,150-mile Iditarod sled race across the extreme Alaska terrain nine times. Whittemore, now 32, followed in his father’s footsteps, winning the race twice as a teenager. But more than an athlete, Whittemore is really a scientist at heart.
He graduated at the top of his high school class and was able to choose among six colleges that had accepted him. But he wanted the same thing in a university that he had experienced in his small Alaskan village — a place where everyone knew and cared about each other. “My first choice was the University of Oregon,” he said. “But when we walked into a medium-sized lecture, there were 300 people in the room — double the size of my entire town.”
By contrast, he felt at home at Saint Mary’s as he walked the leafy campus, observed people collaborating on projects and sharing ideas, and heard professors talking with their students instead of lecturing at them. And he appreciated Saint Mary’s deliberate and unwavering focus on integrating science with the rest of the liberal arts, something that is increasingly important in today’s world. This approach is exemplified in Collegiate Seminar, where all Saint Mary’s students explore the great books and the big ideas of human culture.
It's really educating people to become learners for life." said Roy Wensley, dean of the School of Science. It is critically important for scientists to learn how to clearly communicate with the public about their work, he noted. “Our science students have to learn how to write,” he explained. “And they do a lot of writing. Math students write a senior essay, delving into some area of their discipline.”
Too often, science programs at other universities are narrowly focused, exposing students only to courses within their particular fields, Wensley explained. That may produce excellent scientists, but it doesn’t always produce excellent thinkers. “I like to think of the Saint Mary’s approach as the students getting a great science education but also grappling with a lot of the ‘big questions’ of humanity, meaning and purpose,” he said.
Alumna Maria Peralta ‘08 (pictured at right) agrees and said Collegiate Seminar was, “one of the of the School of Science. It is top things I took away from my education at Saint Mary’s College.” A fuller background in liberal arts made her a better scientist by exposing her to other viewpoints and ways of thinking. “Science is a team pursuit and the progression of science depends on other people’s work and collaboration with other people,” said Peralta, who earned a chemistry degree at Saint Mary’s and is working toward her doctorate at UC Davis. “It is crucial to be able to interact with other scientists, and the ability to know how to do that is not something a lot of people know how to do.”
Psychology major Angelina Elliott ’05 pointed to another experience that helped to prepare her for medical school at UC Davis. “My answer has never wavered over the last six years: playing Division I soccer at Saint Mary’s College,” Elliott said. “Participating in a team sport and learning how to collaborate and communicate with teammates and coaches helped me to develop the skills needed to effectively communicate with other health care team members as well as my patients.’’ The experience also taught her discipline and how to prioritize her time for studies, extracurricular activities and time with friends and family. And, in addition to basic science knowledge, Elliott also took with her an increased ability to show compassion and empathy because of Saint Mary’s focus on human reason, ethics and justice. “The college essentially teaches in a very humanistic way with the ultimate goal of making life better for all people,” she said. And now Elliott — who finishes medical school this May and is waiting to hear where she will serve her pediatric residency — is paying it forward. “I have always felt supported in my endeavors by Saint Mary’s College, specifically my mentor Dr. Hoang Vu and health science advisor Karen Cowman. The school’s steadfast encouragement has motivated me to give back to the school and be a mentor for any Saint Mary’s College student interested in medicine as a career.”
The opportunity for science students to interact closely with their professors has proven valuable. “It is really easy to see superiors in science as very threatening and intimidating since they know so much more science then the starting scientist,” Peralta said. “But because of the small feel of the science department, I had constant interaction with all of the chemistry professors and it was that interaction that lessened the intimidation factor for me both when I was working in the semiconductor industry and now in graduate school.” Whittemore particularly enjoyed the intimate atmosphere. “The physics program was 6 or 10 people and we were the biggest group they had had. We were kind of a little family all on our own. Because we were such a small group, we were all in it together.” His wife, who went to Texas A&M, had a different experience. “She is always blown away that I call my physics professors by their first names and that I keep in touch with them and go visit them.’’
A common misperception about scientists is that they are not social creatures but rather are lone figures, toiling away in the laboratory. But much of the work is collaborative in nature and done in groups of people who may be from different backgrounds, countries and experiences. That makes interacting with others and collaborating cooperatively an imperative skill, said Ken Brown ’77, who has been teaching at Saint Mary’s since 1984.
To drive that lesson home, Brown provides students with a set of experimental results (different spectra) that provide various clues to the identity of an unknown compound. Students must identify the compound and show how the experimental evidence supports their conclusion, he said. “As one student proposes a specific structural feature of the unknown compound, others can agree or point out contradictory evidence. If any of the students has been struggling with how to begin this sort of problem, they have this opportunity to learn strategies from their classmates,’’ Brown said.
The lessons go beyond the laboratory to the field, where students gain real-world experience during January Term. They go all over the world to study things like reef ecology on the Cook Islands or food justice in Nicaragua. But even then, there’s more to it than science. “The January Term is an opportunity to take them to China or the South Pacific to study culture, art and science,’’ said Wensley, who co-led a trip to the Cook Islands with Professor Carla Bossard several years ago.
Damon Tighe, a 2001 biology major who now lives in Oakland and works in the education division of Bay Area-based life science technology company Bio-Rad, went along on that Jan Term trip to the Cook Islands to study reef ecology, anthropology and astronomy. “That was an opportunity you can only get at Saint Mary’s.”
While in the Cook Islands, Tighe made necklaces from urchin spines for Wensley and Bossard to show his appreciation for the effort they put into organizing the trip. “I wanted to give them a token of my gratitude,’’ he said. Wensley still has the necklace in his office. Tighe believes his experiences in Jan Term opened his eyes to different cultures and prepared him for the working world, beginning with his first job — teaching at De La Salle North Catholic High School in Portland, where he lived with three Christian Brothers.
“Being there was a way to experience a different culture and the mechanisms that make that culture work,” he said. Saint Mary’s emphasis on providing science majors with a solid foundation in liberal arts and mind stretching experiences is nothing new and has served generations of students well.
In 1971 Macken and his brother incorporated a company named Optical Engineering Inc. to manufacture and sell scientific instruments that Macken developed. He also developed the process and equipment to make laser engraved decorations in wood products and make intricate laser cut paper products. The company changed its name to Lasercraft, Inc. and by 1991 it had grown to about 230 employees. He later developed a new type of high-power CO2 laser and an innovative optical design that allowed sheet metal to be used for welding automobiles and then sold the company to an automotive-related company in 1997. Macken’s background in physics was instrumental in his success, of course, but so too were the skills he honed in one of the last places you might expect to find a physics major: the Debate Society. But the skills he learned debating his classmates transformed him from a shy and introverted young man into a bold and confident businessman.
“When I was president of my own company, the ability to communicate with employees was critical. I had to be able to influence them to adopt my vision or plan,” he said. “I was always using skills that I developed in speech and debate.” Other students have experienced the same transition. “When I came into Saint Mary’s College I was painfully shy,’’ said Michelle Nenzel ’10, who earned a degree in chemistry in 2010 and is now working on a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Nevada, Reno. Honing her debating and public speaking skills through liberal arts courses sharpened her ability to communicate with peers. That skill served her well the first time she had to deliver a talk, on depleted uranium and its impact on the environment. “If I hadn’t had Seminar I don’t think I would have gotten through it.’’