Summer Means Science at MHC

Posted: August 1, 2006

Two months before she starts her first college courses as a Mount Holyoke student, Courtney Branch is hard at work in a laboratory in Carr learning a staining technique to look for a specific kind of immune cell. Branch and two other incoming first-year students got an early taste of what science research is like through MHC's new Science Scholars Program, designed to recruit and retain a diverse set of undergraduate students in the sciences. The goal is that Branch and the other students will make connections with faculty and students early on and see the sciences as an inviting--rather than intimidating--place. "It's a way to expose promising students to research early on and make them feel at home in the sciences," said Sarah Bacon, associate professor of biological sciences.

For first-year students enrolled in large introductory science classes, making connections with faculty can be intimidating. "As a freshman, I would have loved this program," said Mariah Whitbread-Hardman '08, who mentored Branch in Bacon's lab. "You get to meet with other people your own year, as well as older students, and you get to know faculty, which is a big thing. It can be hard to walk up to them in a large lecture class, so this makes you more at ease." Branch and Whitbread-Hardman were working with Bacon to identify "natural killer cells," which are likely responsible for making the uterus a hospitable place for a fetus.

The students live on campus for four weeks and are paired with upper-level students and faculty members in two different labs. After working with Bacon, Branch switched to working with Megan Nùñez, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Chemistry.

Branch, from San Jose, California, already knew she was interested in biology and research. "When I got the letter, this seemed like the greatest thing ever. I've been completely incorporated in the lab processes, and it's been a good opportunity to see what working in a lab is like," she said.

The Science Scholars Program, which was the idea of Sean Decatur, Marilyn Dawson Sarles, M.D. Professor of Life Sciences and Professor of Chemistry, is modeled after the Cascade Mentoring Summer Research Program that takes place on campus every summer. Rising seniors are paired with rising sophomores in a lab research project designed by the seniors and a faculty member.

The mentoring aspect has been an important part of both programs. "I get to solidify what I'm doing by having to explain my work," Whitbread-Hardman said. "And I get a chance to meet new students and give them tips and advice."

The funding for the Cascade program, as well as for some individual student research projects, comes from a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant. Ten students worked on campus this summer as part of the HHMI program, with another six students working at labs on other campuses. Several other students worked in labs with science faculty over the summer.

Two Cascade students who worked with associate professor of biological sciences Craig Woodard and Amy Springer, visiting assistant professor of biological sciences, studied trypanosomes, the parasites that cause African sleeping sickness. And a pair of Science Scholars worked with Woodard to use fluorescence video microscopy to study changes that occur in the nervous system as a fruit fly changes from a larva into an adult. The goal of the research is to determine how steroid hormones direct changes in body parts during development.

This kind of research is far different than what students experience in class. "In lab with bio class, experiments always work. Here, you learn to do the perfection. You learn that it's not always as easy as you think it's going to be," said Whitbread-Hardman.

The students' research culminated in the annual Summer Science Symposium on July 26, where students presented talks or posters about the projects they worked on over the summer to faculty, students, and visitors.

Decatur came up with the idea for the Science Scholars Program after he, Woodard, President Joanne V. Creighton, and other faculty and students attended a symposium on diversity in the sciences at Harvard, one of three symposia created by a group of program directors (including Woodard) of HHMI Undergraduate Science Education Program grants. Their aim is to understand how successful programs have "grown" scientists from the substantial numbers of women, underrepresented minorities, first-generation college students, and students from low-income families who enroll in introductory life science courses, and then spread that information to other institutions interested in change.

"It's a big advantage for incoming students to get started early and get hands-on experience doing research," Decatur said. "It's a place where good learning can happen."

But it wouldn't be summer if it were all work. Weekly activities were organized for all the science students on campus over summer--ranging from seminar speakers and recent alums who addressed students' concerns to salsa lessons. "Whether it's learning where Rao's is or going to New York City for a day, we try to make them feel like this place can be home," said Bacon.

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