Students Become Summer Scientists

While undergraduate classes ceased for the summer, academic activity continued in the labs and in the library as nearly a dozen students participated in a School of Science research program that's now produced 100 graduates.

These students examined a variety of scientific questions. Maryam Waheed '05 studied a protein in a fruit fly, a model organism that enables humans to learn more about their own nervous system. Julie Levie '04 compared the alkaloid content of two California populations of scotch broom, an invasive plant. Jessica Barlow '05 studied a gene involved in Alzheimer's disease. Joanne Genewick '04 and Fakhri Shafai '04 contributed to Professor Margaret Field's breast cancer research.

"It's a very special opportunity for shared inquiry," says Neeraj Chugh, who served as faculty mentor to Waheed, Barlow, and Michelle Coit '05 this summer. "I love working with bright young minds who are genuinely interested in the process of science. Plus, I learn a lot. We delve into questions together."

Sophomores and juniors with a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher in any School of Science program -- biology, chemistry, physics, math, environmental science, health science, psychology, or the 3+2 engineering program -- can apply for these research opportunities. If their proposals are accepted, they read the professional literature related to their project, conduct independent research, confer with their faculty mentors, write a research report, and share their findings with others on campus in the fall. Some go on to present their research at an off- campus conference or publish a paper with their faculty mentor. Some also extend their research experience, continuing their work as an independent-study or Jan Term project.

For Travis Biziorek '05, summer research was a means to accomplish both short- and long-term goals. He explains, "I wanted more experience in a lab. I've learned about a lot of new chemical reactions and how to perform those reactions. I've also learned to use new instruments. I want to go into the pharmaceutical industry and hope this experience will help me get an internship."

According to Dean Judd Case, the summer research experience offers immediate returns in the classroom. Case, who has expanded the number of research opportunities since taking the School of Science helm in 2000 and hopes to see the program grow to twelve to fifteen participants each year, says, "The students come back to their academics with a very different viewpoint. They've been scientists. They ask better questions. They're more insightful. They have a more critical perspective in terms of the information given to them. They're at another intellectual level. We see that no matter where they were in their class standing beforehand, after this experience, they all tend to be among the top students."

That success continues after the research students complete their undergraduate education. Many enroll in graduate or professional school. Some first pursue post-baccalaureate research at such places as the National Institutes of Health. Some who become physicians also get involved in medical research.

"For me, working with students on research projects is one of the best aspects of teaching at Saint Mary's," says chemistry professor Ken Brown, a 1977 Saint Mary's alumnus who has served as a faculty mentor to about thirty undergraduates, including the first summer research student back in 1986 and both Levie and Biziorek this summer. "It's nice to think that I have some role in their career decisions or training by working with them as a research mentor."

-- by Amy DerBedrosian
College Communications