Trailblazers Discover Graduate-Level Challenges
She never tried to deceive anyone, but Mount Holyoke senior Kim Iller says people repeatedly mistook her for a postdoctoral researcher last summer. It was a natural assumption, since Iller was the only undergraduate conducting research with professors and postdocs on alcohol sensitization in a California neurology lab. Lab prowess has also earned Iller a postgraduation job, which she plans to combine with a neuroscience graduate program.
A similar case of mistaken identity happened at the latest Geological Society of America meeting, at which three MHC women made presentations."Many people assumed our undergraduates were in graduate school because of the high intellectual level of their research and the quality of their presentations," says associate professor of geology Lauret Savoy.
These mixups aren't that surprising; Mount Holyoke is the undergraduate college of more women who have gone on to earn science Ph.D.s than any other institution. Graduate and professional school entrance rates vary widely from class to class; in one, over 80 percent ultimately went on to graduate school. Typically, up to one-third of each class goes directly to graduate school, and another third begins graduate study within Žve years after MHC. It takes intellectual curiosity and hard work to succeed, but Mount Holyoke helps students get a jump on graduate school by offering them graduate-level challenges as undergraduates.
Fast Track to Success
How does an MHC education hold up when students test their mettle in grad school? Consider Petra Scamborova '97. In only two years, she completed a master's at Cambridge University and is enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Yale in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. "In both universities, I felt very well prepared for my courses and lab work because of MHC's solid course work, previous lab experience in science internships, and my MHC thesis project. I actually overheard a Cambridge professor say that he wished their biochemistry program was as solid and grounded as Mount Holyoke's!"
Scamborova's classmate Kathleen Maile Moore '97, now a graduate degree candidate in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas, says, "I found Mount Holyoke extremely demanding academically, so when I got to grad school and produced the same quality work, my new professors were extremely pleased," she says. "Other grad students complained about the work load or about 'demanding' professors. I said, 'Thanks for the break.'"
Not every MHC alumna Žnds graduate school a breeze, but faculty in all academic disciplines support students who want graduate degrees in their future. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sciences. "If grad school is what you want, there are opportunities to do solid research while you're an MHC undergrad, with a professor who treats your work with respect," says Lisa M. Cocozzella '99, who is teaching a computer to translate Latin into English and is applying to graduate programs in computer science. Every summer some Žfty young women conduct research on campus, working with science faculty on substantial projects. Many others complete academic-year internships, research assistant jobs, or independent studies.
Students' work has been published in scholarly journals and even cited by professional scientists. Presentations made by two current students at a conference on experimental uses of the nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer were so well received that both women were actively recruited for graduate programs by conference participants. And at the annual meeting of the leading geoscience organization-where undergrad speakers are unusual-senior Hannah Thomas delivered two papers.
This kind of success doesn't happen by chance. "I incorporate into my teaching various elements that a research scientist needs to thrive," notes biochemistry professor Lilian Hsu. For example, she uses a "journal club" in seminars. This format, routinely found in graduate research labs, has students read primary research articles and evaluate speciŽc experimental Žndings.
But graduate-level preparation isn't only for science majors. Overall, nearly 400 women each semester work on independent research topics in a range of academic areas. About sixty seniors complete a yearlong thesis project in Želds ranging from anthropology to theatre arts. These projects often land students in graduate programs. Recent honors thesis "veterans" are now studying economics at Princeton, dance at the University of California, French literature at the University of Wisconsin, psychology at Fordham, and education at Tufts, to name just a few examples.
What Makes a Difference
Mount Holyoke women achieve partly because they work so hard. A survey comparing MHC seniors to those at similar institutions found that MHC women spent more time in class or lab, and more time talking with faculty outside of class, than women at other colleges. For many, faculty attention is another key to success.
Religion professor Jane Crosthwaite says that the obvious results of faculty mentoring-publications, conference presentations, and the like-are "over and above the steady, daily work which [professors] all do, driven by our desire to prepare students for graduate school." Grad study was only a vague possibility for Kathleen Maile Moore '97 when she started at Mount Holyoke. "I knew what I wanted to study, but I had no idea how enthralling the classes would be. The more I learned, the more I wanted to continue learning, and grad school seemed a logical way to explore further the worlds professors opened to me."
Lilla Zollei '99 echoes the importance of faculty support. "Besides being extremely encouraging in my research projects for two years, MHC professors also helped me prepare for the GREs, told me about various departments, research groups, and career options, and made essential remarks on drafts of my grad school applications."
Even at a college famous for faculty-student collaboration, Helen Leung's devotion was unusual. The associate professor of chemistry delayed a planned leave by several months to continue a research project with Sarah McDaniel Cureton '97, now a graduate student at the University of California at Davis. Working on two separate research projects gave Cureton "a taste for what research is really like: the joys of investigating and the disappointments when things don't go right. Most people don't have the beneŽt of 'trying on' a new job to make sure it Žts. Undergraduate research gave me that unique opportunity."
Professors aren't the only ones encouraging students to set their scholastic sights high for grad school and beyond. "The Career Development Center's staff tell us, 'You don't know how smart and amazing you are!'" says Natalie A. Ochs '99. "And we are creative, amazing, talented, smart women; we know it, and everyone else does too. My MHC experience has given me the opportunity to have a 'jump start' not only on graduate school, but also on the rest of my life."
BY EMILY HARRISON WEIR
ILLUSTRATIONS BY MAUREEN SCANLON