Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2009

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Tri-captain Thomas Giblin ´10 elevates for a header in a Fall Weekend win against Colby on the Artificial Turf at Silfen Field, while Nick Maghenzani ´13 closes in on the play. Head coach Kenny Murphy´s Camels finished 8-6-1 in the program´s best record in more than a decade.

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Success is in Their DNA

Success is in Their DNA
Clockwise from top left: Morgan Maeder ´00, Leny Gogheva ´04, Ray Squires ´99, Chuck Halsey ´00

Research experience and faculty mentors build high-achieving biological sciences alumni

By Mary Howard


OBSERVATION

What is it, exactly, with alumni of Connecticut College´s biological sciences programs? They are achieving success at an astounding rate, earning advanced degrees from highly respected graduate programs and winning competitive grants. They are exploring cutting-edge cancer treatments, looking at innovative ways to cure autoimmune disorders and developing technologies to better understand how infectious diseases are spread.

Between 1997 and 2006, alumni earned 250 Ph.D.s, and almost a quarter of those were in the life sciences. Martha Grossel, associate professor of biology and department chair, says this places the College ahead of many of its peer schools.


HYPOTHESIS

So what´s behind this success? Grossel and her colleagues say it´s the College´s hands-on approach to teaching and close faculty-student research collaborations.

A large number of biological sciences students who go on to competitive graduate programs leave campus with original research experience under their belts. “We do an amazing job with students who do research with us,” Grossel says.

Recently two alumnae, Emily Elliott ´05 and Morgan Maeder ´06, won grants from the National Science Foundation´s Graduate Research Fellowship Program, given to promising graduate students at the beginning of their careers. More than one-third of the graduates who have done research in Grossel´s lab have earned or are enrolled in Ph.D. programs. One-fourth have gone on to earn M.D.s or D.V.M.s.

Marylynn Fallon, a lecturer in biology and the College´s pre-medical adviser, says medical schools want students who can solve problems. “We do a good job with this because of our philosophy of teaching hands-on problem-solving,” she says. Fallon sees student-faculty research as vital to student success in medical and veterinary school. “You just don´t get that at a big university.” Approximately 85 percent of Connecticut College students who apply to medical schools are accepted, Fallon says — even though the College does not pre-screen applicants. “All students who are interested in a medical career get our support,” she says.


EXPERIMENT

Science majors everywhere are required to spend time in a lab, but not all undergraduates have the opportunity to conduct their own experiments alongside their professors. “We´re not talking about canned experiments where the results are already known. This isn´t adding A to B and getting C,” Grossel says. “They´re really being scientists.”

Each semester, professors in the biological sciences, like Deborah Eastman, associate professor of biology, work with two to five students on original research that will, ideally, contribute to their fields. Eastman´s main focus of study is on developmental gene expression — how genes are involved in the specialization of cells. “We´re looking at why a cell becomes a nerve cell and not, say, a skin cell,” she says.

“That scientific process that they go through, it´s important,” Eastman adds. “Learning how to research a question and design an experiment gives them an understanding of what it means to be a scientist.”

The students are “part owners” in the research, Eastman says. Some, like Morgan Maeder ´06, a cell and molecular biology major, publish academic papers with their professors. As an undergraduate, Maeder, who studied gene expression during fruit fly development in Eastman´s lab, published with her mentor in Nature, the world´s most frequently cited interdisciplinary science journal, and in Genetics, a top-tier journal in the field. “It was pretty amazing having two papers published as an undergraduate,” Maeder says.

Grossel says the College´s small size and its philosophy of hands-on science makes this type of research possible. “There´s no graduate student between me and my researchers,” she says. “These students get their hands right on the fancy equipment.”

That fancy equipment includes the $350,000 transmission electron microscope (TEM) that Emily Elliott ´05 used to do her undergraduate research with Page Owen, associate professor of botany and department chair. A cell and molecular biology major, Elliott spent two years and one summer examining how cell-cycle proteins affect cell shape. Much of that time was spent learning the intricacies of transmission electron microscopy. “I spent a lot of time learning how to fix samples,” which are embedded in plastic resin and then cut into slices 60 nanometers thick.

“The purpose of graduate school is learning how to think like a scientist,” Elliott says. “My work at Connecticut College took away a lot of that learning curve. It wasn´t all brand new to me.”

Vasilena Gocheva ´04 had no prior research experience when she took a summer internship with Grossel, studying the function of cell-cycle proteins. “I loved the experience I had with Marty in the lab so much, I decided to pursue science over medicine,” says Gocheva, a Bulgarian native who comes from a family of medical doctors.

Professors receive no teaching credits or other compensation for mentoring a student, and the process often creates more work for these very busy academics. “I have to check their work,” Grossel says. But working with students in the lab is the most rewarding part of her job, she says. “You take an average, or slightly above-average student, and you get them into the lab, and all of a sudden something happens. Their grades go up. They´re making connections.”

“I enjoy seeing a student get excited about their own discoveries,” Owen agrees. “It makes it a better experience for me.”


CONCLUSION

Again and again, biological sciences alumni credit their undergraduate institution with getting them where they are now. “I´m sure I wouldn´t have gotten into graduate school without the research experience I had at Conn,” says Maeder, who is working on her Ph.D. at Harvard Medical School, where she´s examining ways to correct — at a DNA level — the genetic mutations that cause diseases like sickle-cell anemia.

Elliott, who as a Ph.D. student at University of California, San Francisco, is researching immunology as it relates to rheumatoid arthritis, says she is the only person in her class who had used a TEM: “It´s not common, even at the graduate level.” The experience, she says, definitely made her stand out from the crowd.

Gocheva agrees. “Without my (undergraduate) research experience I would not have had a chance in graduate school,” she says. Now she´s researching treatments that target pancreatic cancer as a Ph.D. candidate at Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

Owen says hands-on learning gives his students a leg up in graduate school and in the workplace as well. Some of the honors theses that have crossed his desk since he joined the faculty in 1992 would meet requirements for a master´s thesis, he says. “These students are well prepared. They know about independent research.”

But it may be the role of mentor that Connecticut College faculty take most seriously, and the close teacher-student collaborations that this role fosters is another important reason for these students´ success. “Maybe my biggest contribution to science is sending these kids off into the world,” Grossel says.

Gocheva says of her internship with Grossel, “Marty gave me a lot of autonomy, but she was always there to help if I had a problem” — even coming in on weekends from her home in Rhode Island to assist Gocheva in the lab.

Laura Fahey ´03, a biology major, was a research assistant with Owen for two and a half years. “I became close to his entire family. I babysat for his children,” she says.

Fahey used the transmission electron microscope to investigate the reassembly of the Golgi apparatus in Zinnia elegans mesophyll cells. “I remember calling Page during dinner to tell him about an exciting finding in my research. I would never do something like that now.”

Raynal Squires ´99 was an overwhelmed freshman when he met zoology professor Linda Kosturko. Though he had an excellent education in his native Barbados, two years in an inner-city high school in New York left him feeling ill-prepared for college. “Linda took me under her wing and channeled my interests in science and nature,” he says of Kosturko, who died in 2008. “I looked up to her and wanted to do whatever she did.”

Squires earned his Ph.D. from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Now a postdoctoral fellow at Yale, he studies mechanisms that allow bacteria to move from cell to cell. “It was through research in Linda´s lab that I began to see what my future could be like. All I really needed was someone to set an example.”

Chuck Halsey ´00 found a mentor in Grossel, even though she joined the faculty during his senior year. “Studying biological sciences in a small liberal arts school is, in my opinion, the best learning environment for an undergraduate student,” says Halsey, a zoology major. “The low faculty-to-student ratio allows for maximum interaction between the student and faculty member, who very quickly becomes more of a mentor than a lecturer. That´s difficult to find in a large university.”

Halsey received his M.S. in biochemistry and D.V.M. from Auburn University and is now completing his residency in pathology and a Ph.D. in veterinary cancer research at Colorado State University. “Marty and I have stayed in touch after graduation. She was as helpful in developing my career and critical thinking skills as if we´d had four years together,” he says.

Fahey, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, says Owen helped her decide which graduate school to attend — her Ph.D. is from the University of Southern California — and he has remained a touchstone throughout her career. “He taught me that I can really do this, that I can discover my own answers to my own questions.”


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