The Colgate Scene
May 2005

The nucleus of teaching

[Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Ken Belanger likes to be at the center of things. Literally and figuratively.

Take his professional life: Belanger carries the standard courseload. He works elbow to elbow with a "constant stream" of students in his Olin Hall lab. He serves on numerous committees for Colgate, including the health sciences advisory committee and committee on athletics. He spends time getting to know each of the undergraduates he advises. And he recognizes that each student has a life and activities outside the classroom, just as he does.

Then there's his research. One of Belanger's main areas of interest is the cell nucleus. The nucleus is the site for numerous biological reactions and, more importantly, houses the majority of a cell's DNA, which dictates when reproduction and growth occur and determines what functions a cell will have. Belanger studies how proteins get in and out of the nucleus -- the structure that, in essence, serves as Central Command for the building blocks of life.

Wordplay aside, Belanger's philosophy toward being involved spills into everything he does. The newly tenured faculty member has consistently juggled roles as researcher, teacher, administrator, mentor, husband, and father since he began teaching at the university nearly four years ago, but he maintains a healthy balance that shows in every interaction, his students say. That approach is paying off. Many of Belanger's undergraduates leave the university having co-authored academic papers with him, presented their work at major conferences, or landed spots at high-profile research organizations or prestigious medical or graduate programs, including at Duke University, the University of Michigan, and Washington University, among others.

Discovering Colgate
Belanger first learned of Colgate while completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During his time at UNC, Belanger worked with and was advised by Ralph Quatrano '62, then a member of the faculty there. Quatrano currently serves as the Spencer T. Olin Professor and chairman of biology at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL).

In addition to involving him in his laboratory research, Belanger said that Quatrano mentored him on a personal level, gave him pointers on teaching, and worked with him to land his first scientific grant. When Belanger asked for advice on his career aspirations, Quatrano pointed him toward the liberal arts. "He asked me what I needed and wanted, and said, `here's how I can help you,'" Belanger said. "He also ended up passing along to me his enthusiasm for teaching, service, and, ultimately, Colgate."

"I've been a lifetime supporter of the liberal arts in general and Colgate specifically," Quatrano explained. "Those who have been a part of my laboratory over the past 30-plus years have heard this story many times." Belanger himself often spoke warmly of interactions with his undergraduate professors at Luther College, the small liberal arts school in Decorah, Iowa, that he attended, so it was not a surprise when he chose to teach at a liberal arts institution, said Quatrano. He added: "The reason we both chose this profession is that we really want to make a difference in the lives of others."

In the years since Belanger moved from UNC to the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and then to Colgate, the bond between Belanger and Quatrano has only strengthened. The two kept in close contact, and frequently traveled to guest lecture at one another's institutions and classes. It seemed a no-brainer, then, that when Quatrano and his WUSTL colleagues began discussing extending their research beyond the walls of their campus for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant proposal a little more than two years ago, Quatrano thought of his own alma mater and Belanger. "Colgate has outstanding undergraduates but also dedicated teachers like Ken who can bring a new approach to understanding biological systems to a group of students not associated with a major research institution like Washington University," he explained.

Last September, that NSF award came through. Belanger, Quatrano, and a team of scientists from a handful of other institutions across the country landed a five-year, $5 million Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research (FIBR) grant to use a multi-disciplinary approach to studying how a specific group of high-energy molecules affects cells. The funding, said Belanger, finances work in the lab, and covers the cost to send three Colgate undergraduates from various science disciplines to WUSTL to do three weeks of coursework and seven weeks of hands-on "systems biology" research during the summers. "My hope is that [the students] will use methods from each of their disciplines to answer some key biological questions," he said. "Of course, I'm also hoping that they'll bring what they learn in St. Louis back to my lab and campus, and help foster collaboration between the various sciences at Colgate."

Ken Belanger, associate professor of biology, speaks with Stephanie Gleicher '06 about her journal before class in Olin Hall.

A mentor
The undergraduates involved in the FIBR award won't be the first to reap the rewards of Belanger's efforts. Today, Brendan Kelley '02 uses the skills he developed under his tutelage in a plant pathology lab at Cornell University. The second-year graduate student chose to serve as a lab technician at Cornell for a year immediately after leaving Colgate, and only after that experience matriculated at Cornell -- both decisions that he talked over with Belanger. Kelley said he looks back with fondness on those conversations about his career, but recalled the casual ones he had with Belanger about everything from family to unicycling with even more affection.

"Among other things, we discussed the integration of personal and professional goals, how to balance work and play, and what it's like to harvest sap on a snowy hillside near Colgate in preparation for maple syrup," he said. Kelley also recalled Belanger's personal attention to each of his students, his disarming manner in the classroom, and one particularly notable skill: "Ken's ability to draw and label diagrams upside down and backward while talking to students on the opposite side of his desk always astounded me -- what a teaching tool!"

Amitabha Gupta '05 also admired Belanger's talent in the classroom. "His M.O. [modus operandi] involves getting students interested in what they are doing. Then the work doesn't seem nearly as hard as it is, and becomes really enjoyable," said Gupta, who has worked with Belanger since the summer of 2004 and co-authored a paper that has been provisionally accepted by Genetics, a periodical published by the Genetics Society of America. (At press time, Gupta was considering offers for graduate programs from the University of Virginia, the University of Washington-Seattle, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia.) "All of his classes require a lot of work, but it's still your own curiosity that drives you," said Gupta.

Belanger comes by that approach naturally. He said he knows all too well the benefits of a close student-professor relationship -- especially for an undergraduate interested in the sciences at a liberal arts school. When he started at Luther, Belanger said, he was interested in fisheries biology; after being introduced to research by some of his professors, he became interested in what would become the focus of his research, molecular genetics. The opportunity to explore his options, he said, was what led him to where he is today.

"There's so much learning that happens outside of the classroom on a small campus like this," he said. "There's also a culture of teaching and research here that isn't found on just any campus -- members of the faculty are really dedicated to both. I can't imagine myself anywhere else."

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