Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2008-2009


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A Catalyst to Success

A Catalyst to Success
Science leaders in the classroom listen to Professor Zimmer.

When creating future scientists, research opportunities, faculty mentors and peer support are key parts of the equation

By Phoebe Hall

Connecticut College was one of a dozen schools Rabia Nasir applied to last year. She´d never visited campus or received so much as a brochure in the mail, and only applied after one of her teachers at Crosby High School, in Waterbury, Conn., suggested she´d fit in there. But as the acceptance letters rolled in, one sentence grabbed her attention:

“Congratulations on being selected as a Connecticut College Science Leader!”

Nasir had never heard of the Science Leaders Program before receiving the letter. But upon learning of the benefits the program provides — including research opportunities, additional mentoring and enhanced financial aid — the aspiring doctor had a new first-choice school. “Science Leaders is what made my decision to come to Conn,” she says.

The new program made the decision for 16 other freshmen as well. Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, it aims to increase the number of underrepresented students in the sciences by giving admission priority to women, people of color, and economically disadvantaged and first-generation college students. “We´ve tried to create a cohort — a group of students with similar interests who can help each other over the four years with science,” says Marc Zimmer, the Barbara Zaccheo Kohn ´72 Professor of Chemistry, who created the Science Leaders Program. He explains that women and minorities benefit when their peers are in the same classes. “If you make a peer group of scientists that all have to have labs, they don´t have to make that choice between hanging out with their friends or doing their work.”

Many of the Science Leaders agree. “It´s always nice to have people who are into the same things as you,” says Christina Balkaran, who wants to study physics and astronomy. “You find you have a lot in common besides science.” Kathryn Arroyo and Anne Kearney, for example, are both on the cross country team; Alexander DeShields and Erick Argueta participate in dance clubs. Arroyo, who´s considering a career in orthopedics or sports medicine, says several of the Science Leaders became friends during freshman orientation, not realizing they were all in the program. “Together, the group meshes really well,” she says. “We know we´re all in this together.”

The whole group is physically together only for one first-semester class: a freshman seminar, Glow, in which Zimmer is teaching them about bioluminescence and its applications in science and medicine. Inside a small classroom in Hale Laboratory with a periodic table that nearly fills one of the white walls, the Science Leaders look about as awake as any college students would be at 9 a.m., punctuating their note-taking with yawns and sips of coffee. But Zimmer has their full attention: several hands shoot in the air whenever he asks a question, and when they later troop down to a basement lab to look under a microscope, they talk animatedly about what they observed and compare drawings on the blackboard.

Glow is the only science class that Catherine Lawton is taking this semester. She was admitted to the Science Leaders Program based on her math skills — she´s also in Calculus II and Discrete Mathematics — but says she chose Connecticut College to “give science another chance.” Glow, and Zimmer, have reignited her interest in the subject. DeShields agrees: “Marc is finding ways to stick chemistry in (Glow) that I never thought would relate in real life. … A class like that goes beyond the classroom.”

He means that literally, too. After months of learning about glowing organisms, the students traveled to Isla de Vieques, Puerto Rico, over Thanksgiving break to experiment on single-celled creatures called dinoflagellates that light up the island´s famous bioluminescent bays. “I´m really excited to do those experiments,” Balkaran said before leaving for the trip, which was funded by a gift to the College. “It´s not just going to Vieques, it´s being able to do something hands-on like that.”

Before the trip, Balkaran was already getting hands-on experience on campus, helping Arlan Mantz, the Oakes Ames Professor of Physics, with his research using tunable diode lasers. The Science Leaders Program allows students to perform research in place of work study to reduce their loans; about half of the group, Zimmer says, is already taking advantage of the opportunity. “The main difference between them and other science majors will be that many of them started doing research in their first semester,” he says. It´s this benefit that brought Sokkha Hak, who is considering a career in medicine, to New London from Pomona, Calif. “I chose Conn over UCLA because of the research opportunities,” she says.

Kearney, who is “getting her hands dirty” studying bacteria in estuarine mud, is thrilled with the one-on-one access that research offers her. “Professor Bernhard has taught me so much,” she says, referring to Anne Bernhard, the George and Carol Milne Assistant Professor of Biology. “Faculty here devote a lot of time to sharing their research with their students,” she adds. But the help Kearney gets from her fellow Science Leaders is just as valuable; she says she “learns a lot” from Courtney Dwyer, who is also researching with Bernhard and has previous experience working in labs, and from the students who are also in her biology class. “They´re really smart,” Kearney says of the Science Leaders. “We work together really well.”

Zimmer says he intentionally chose applicants with different strengths so they could help each other. “Others stood out because of different interests, like girls interested in math or computer science,” he adds. Because the program was so new, students in the class of 2012 couldn´t apply and most, like Nasir, didn´t learn of it until they received their acceptance letters saying they´d been admitted to the program. The word is out now: Zimmer says several high school seniors already have inquired about Science Leaders, and students can now check a box on the College application to be considered for the program. NSF funding is in place for four years, and will cover the next class of Science Leaders, Zimmer says. “Three years from now we would like (the funding) to carry on,” he says.

Diversity is another goal of the program, and the inaugural group is diverse in every way but one: Of the 17 Science Leaders, only three are men. Argueta laughs when asked if he minds that ratio, but then adds, “I think it´s a reflection of how much science is evolving and transitioning into something women want to pursue.” DeShields says the female majority challenges the men: “I feel like we have something to prove.” But truly, with their varied backgrounds and experiences as well as their shared intellectual curiosity and motivation, every student in the group presents both a challenge and an incentive to every other. “They bring a lot to the table,” Lawton says of her fellow Science Leaders. “I think if our job is to get more people involved in science, this is the perfect group to do it.”

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