The Colgate Scene
September 2005

The right chemistry
Science at Colgate, a model for collaboration and discovery

Biology lab with professor Nancy Pruitt [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

In the lab and the field
A handful of the faculty-student research projects from the summer of 2005
Normally, talk among a group of college students on a Wednesday afternoon might involve activities from the evening before, plans for the coming weekend, or who was hanging out with whom.

But the bunch crowded into the second-floor corridor of Little Hall one recent July day was no ordinary troop of undergraduates. These were some of the 100-plus rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors on campus this summer to conduct research with Colgate faculty members. Having spent from five to 12 weeks in university labs, offices, and the field exploring areas such as river ecosystems, carbon nanotubes, and protein tyrosine phosphorylation, the students were discussing bypirolles, phase shifters, and heterospecific syllables, displaying the fruits of their labor at a research poster session.

Tara LaLonde '06 studied reforestation and land use in Madison County with geography professor Peter Scull. Cliona Stack '06 analyzed the songs of zebra finches for the second consecutive summer with psychology professor Rick Braaten. Andrew Olson '07 teamed up with physics professor Ken Segall and computer science professor Toshiro Ohsumi to explore non-linear dynamics in superconducting circuits.

For Olson, the event provided more than just an opportunity to discuss his research; it was a chance to spend time with others from across the disciplines and hear about their projects. Currently only a physics major, he plans to double-major in computer science -- a decision he attributes, in part, to his summer research. "With both computer science and physics in my background, I already feel prepared for life after Colgate," he said. "Plus, it's been great to be involved in research that really means something -- on more than just the physics level."

Sentiments like Olson's spotlight a sea change in the general attitude of those in higher education, the government, and even business toward the sciences. Today's frontiers, according to major scientific players, aren't found only in space, but at the intersection of traditional disciplines (physics and computer science, for example), in areas such as environmental science, biochemistry, and planetary science. Whereas academic departments once approached their work in "silos" and functioned independently, researchers in various disciplines are now breaking down the walls that separate them -- literally and figuratively -- and working together.

Colgate is no exception to this trend. The implementation of the strategic plan in 2003 renewed the university's commitment to a strong relationship between research, the transfer of information in the classroom, and the discovery of knowledge in the lab. Growing numbers of faculty members across campus are establishing collaborations that span two or more disciplines, and they are communicating effectively across those disciplines. As a result, Colgate students are being trained more broadly than in the past, and are better positioned than ever before to help solve the questions at the frontiers of science. And the university's efforts to prepare budding scientists for the future can't have come at a more critical time, say the experts; a growing shortage of undergraduates in the sciences is approaching crisis proportions.


Biology and environmental studies professor Randy Fuller (foreground) and Patrick McDermott '06 work on submerging a tube into a creek bed to take timed water samples in the Adirondack State Forest near Old Forge, N.Y. The pair are part of an environmental research team that has received nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation to study the effects of acid rain on the region.

A war of knowledge
Whether American college graduates have the skills they need to compete in today's increasingly global marketplace has become a hot topic of late, as more and more educational institutions overseas revamp and improve their curricula in order to hold on to their own students and graduates. A Feb. 2005 study by the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation -- a group of high-tech companies, academic societies, and scientific professional organizations -- found that 5.7 of every 100 undergraduate degrees granted today by American schools are in the natural sciences and engineering. European countries, on the other hand, award between 8 and 13, Japanese schools 8, and Taiwan and South Korea 11. Even more startling are the aggregate numbers. In 2000, Asian colleges and universities awarded almost 1.2 million of the world's undergraduate natural science and engineering degrees, while European schools accounted for about 850,000. North American institutions -- 500,000.

But that's not all. The National Science Foundation (NSF), one of the government's premier science agencies, found that half of the nation's scientists and engineers are 40 years of age or older, and the average age is steadily rising. The NSF also ranked the United States 17th among nations in the proportion of its 18- to 24-year-olds earning science degrees; a generation ago, the country was ranked third.

The conclusion is obvious. "The United States still leads the world in research and discovery," the TFFAI reported, "but our advantage is rapidly eroding, and our global competitors may soon overtake us."

The dwindling numbers of international students and homegrown researchers constitute a double whammy for the American scientific establishment, a fact that is clearly top-of-mind for members of Colgate's faculty, said President Rebecca S. Chopp. "I can't think of anyone here who wouldn't agree that science is extremely important to us as a society," she said. "But colleges and universities in the United States today just aren't producing students in the sciences as we have in the past, and we're not attracting as many international students as we have in the past. It's a war we're fighting here -- a war of knowledge."

Geology professor Connie Soja has her own theory about the decline in numbers: "In this country, scientists are portrayed as geniuses and nerds who are kind of marginalized," she said. "Because of that, fewer young people are going into the sciences, and we, as a nation, just aren't displaying the best skill levels anymore."

There's also a perception that science is just plain "hard," said Ed Macias '66, executive vice chancellor and dean of arts and sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and member of Colgate's Board of Trustees. "There was a time when it was much more natural, for lack of a better word, for everybody to study science," he explained. "It's just that it's become so specialized and has its own jargon and language that science seems more impenetrable than it is."

On the contrary, Macias said that modern science is just as accessible as it has been in the past; it may simply require a more holistic way of studying it. And that actually makes it more understandable to students, he said. "Taking a more interdisciplinary approach to scientific problems and using a lot of different tools to solve them is just the way we as humans do things. It's how we think." He added that several new federal programs -- the National Institutes of Health's Roadmap and the NSF's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship, to name two -- promote combining skills and disciplines. "Some of the most interesting problems are in interdisciplinary areas, so a lot of the funding is going there."

Given that growing trend toward interdisciplinarity, it's not surprising that members of the Colgate faculty have already shifted their research and teaching to such areas. By doing so, said Chopp, they are giving undergraduates more than just the techniques and methods to embark on a career in one narrow scientific area; they are helping them to use all of their skills and knowledge -- scientific and otherwise -- in the lab, regardless of field. "Here, we excel at promoting critical thought, a skill that is clearly very important for scientists," she said. "We have a tradition of training out-of-the box thinkers and problem-solvers, and many of our students have gone on to become leaders in the sciences, and in businesses investing in the sciences, as a result."

Nikki Cassano '05 and Kyle Wilson '06 work with physics professor Kiko Galvez on a lab focusing on the quantum aspects of light. Creating a lab component to Quantum Mechanics, a theoretical course, was an important curricular innovation because of the emergence of the field of quantum information, where the goal is to use quantum mechanics for communications and computation. The labs project has received substantial funding twice from the NSF. Geology professor Connie Soja uses tactile activities and other fun and engaging interdisciplinary methods to teach her Colgate students. Here, she uses a similar technique to demonstrate the strength of an egg to a junior paleontologist during a Hamilton Elementary School group visit in July.

Charlie McClennen, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of geology, chats with Robert H.N. Ho '56, trustee emeritus, on the academic quad. Ho, who has confirmed a commitment of $25 million for the new interdisciplinary science center, visited campus to discuss plans for the building.

Cultivating budding scientists
Colgate's pipeline to the sciences often begins in the classroom. According to Soja, she and her colleagues are fully aware of how many young people view the sciences, so they attempt to hook them on day one of that first critical year at Colgate. "I think we all try to show students that science is just a different way of looking at things," Soja said. "Learning or discovering something new is the most exciting thing in the world, and that doesn't happen by memorizing dates or events."

Case in point: Soja's popular Evolution: Dinosaurs to Darwin science course, which uses dinosaurs and extinct mammals as vehicles to teach evolutionary theory. Students spend the semester studying historical, behavioral, and environmental information about dinosaurs and discussing how contemporary scientific issues like cloning fit in. They take a "field trip" to Colgate's Huntington Gymnasium to examine life-size latex prehistoric footprints, learn how to conduct fieldwork, and even hold a mock trial set in the year 2020.

Soja isn't the only one engaging Colgate undergraduates in the sciences in fun, thought-provoking, and interdisciplinary ways. Chemistry professor Ephraim Woods, for example, looks at how the news media covers modern scientific issues such as the Atkins diet, the Kyoto Protocol, and the human genome in his core scientific perspectives course Science, the News Media, and You. Geology professor Karen Harpp touches on everything from how the limestone and coral terrain of Okinawa dictated offensive and defensive tactics during World War II to how radiation affected the environment and the Japanese people in her Advent of the Atomic Bomb class. And psychology professor Spencer Kelly explores "a developmental science approach to the nature/nurture debate" through classroom discussions and a trip to the local daycare center in his first-year seminar titled How to Build a Baby.

"A lot of my students haven't thought about science with regard to studying human babies -- many of them don't even know that there is such a thing as developmental science," said Kelly. "But you grab their attention by getting them interested in things that aren't necessarily associated with hard science, and then study them in very scientific ways." Still, he added, nothing can replace work in the lab or field to convey the excitement of being a scientist. "I think [by doing research] you gain an appreciation of how individual study and classes are just a small part of the overall science. In a lecture setting, you're taking notes and writing down these little nuggets of knowledge -- you have no concept of how those nuggets fit into the larger picture. Research really gives you that perspective."


A model of the Ho Science Center, which will create unique opportunities for collaboration among students and faculty in emerging multidisciplinary scientific fields. Once completed, it will sit adjacent to Olin Hall (life science building), Wynn Hall (chemistry), and the ALANA Cultural Center (foreground). Preliminary work for this most ambitious building project in Colgate history -- $50 million and nearly 120,000 square feet -- began over the summer.

Attracting the best and the brightest
A quick look at the numbers of undergraduates in the natural sciences proves that the efforts of Kelly, Soja, Woods, Harpp, and their colleagues in both the lab and classroom are paying off. At a point when many scientific disciplines are losing students to fields such as communications and business, the number of science majors at Colgate has remained healthy, ranging between approximately 180 and 200 since 1998. And over that same time period, the university has had to add several full-time professors in the natural sciences to support the increase in student-faculty engagement.

One such person is biophysicist Jeffrey Buboltz, who joined Colgate in 2002. Officially part of the physics and astronomy department, Buboltz studies the form and function of cell membranes -- a topic that straddles the fields of biology and physics. At larger research institutions, he said, his position might be housed in a department dedicated to biophysics, but "as an interdisciplinary science professor at a smaller liberal arts school, I can spend time in the lab and classroom addressing a wide range of questions and developing a wide range of skills," he explained. "Plus, I get to teach outside of my specialty, which keeps me distributed in terms of my interests and work." He regularly instructs both a core "theory of knowledge" course and a biology class, and wouldn't have it any other way, he said. "If you have to maintain your skill set over a wider range of subjects, I think you end up being sharper as a scholar."

Buboltz's appointment is the first of many more like it expected in the coming years. The construction of the university's $50 million Robert H.N. Ho Science Center should attract several more top-notch interdisciplinary scientists and pave the way for more innovative teaching and research, said Charlie McClennen, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of geology, who played a key role in the faculty planning and design of the building. Named for Robert Hung Ngai Ho '56, trustee emeritus, who has confirmed a commitment of $25 million for the project, the center will house the environmental studies, geography, geology, and physics and astronomy departments and programs, and part of the biology department. It will include research labs, faculty offices, teaching labs, classrooms, a lecture hall/auditorium, visualization lab, museum, and a teaching/research greenhouse. It incorporates common areas and lounges, and labs of researchers with common interests will be situated near one another as well -- a calculated design choice aimed at fostering engagement among faculty members and students involved in each of the departments and eliminating the physical boundaries that have inhibited interdisciplinary collaboration in Lathrop or Olin halls, said McClennen.

Buboltz, for example, is set to move into a hallway of biologists with physics researchers and lab support facilities along the adjacent hallways. Likewise, geologist Amy Leventer, who studies the effects of global warming in Antarctica, will have a lab next door to geographer Adam Burnett, an expert on climate and weather trends. And there's no telling what other interdisciplinary collaborations will be spawned in such an environment, said McClennen, citing the environmental research project of biologists Tim McCay and Randy Fuller and geologists Rich AprilHluchy '81 of Alfred University. The team recently received nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation to study the effects of acid rain and other forms of acid precipitation on the forests, watersheds, and wildlife of the nearby Adirondack Mountain region.

"If we build this facility as it is designed, we'll get first-rate applicants for faculty positions, top students, and more funded research grants similar to this latest one," said McClennen. "The best professionals will compete to come here to do their research and teach in our new Ho Science Center." The rest of campus will feel the effects as well, he explained. "If you have the best facilities, it's possible to get the best minds. If you get the best minds, the students win, which is really what Colgate is and always has been all about."

Ho also believes that undergraduates will gain the most by the construction of the building. "Our global society requires an understanding of the ways different forms of knowledge connect and evolve," he said. "It is especially important, then, that our science graduates know how to use the latest tools and techniques and experience the benefits of working in a collaborative environment so they can compete in a very competitive and dynamic marketplace. The new science center will provide the important and necessary educational opportunities they need to succeed."

Planners of the center hope that the facility will also house a brand-new entity at Colgate: the proposed Institute for Interdisciplinary Study in the Sciences and Mathematics (ISSM). Broadly, the organization -- which is still in the planning stages -- will promote interdisciplinary science and explore the horizons beyond traditional methods of study, teaching, and research by providing project funding for two to four teams of scientists at any one time. While programs in the early years will generally revolve around paleoclimatology, bioinformatics, cognitive science, science and ethics, and environmental toxicology, there's no telling what fields will be the focus of future initiatives, said McClennen. "The institute's goal is to make research in the newest and most advanced fields possible. We may not know exactly what the projects will involve, but we do know that priorities are going to shift, and we want to give our students and faculty the resources to do the most cutting-edge and relevant research."

Lyle Roelofs, provost and dean of the faculty and himself a physicist, noted that the benefits of the Ho Science Center will extend to all Colgate students. "The exciting new facilities will support state-of-the-art classroom techniques," he said, "and in the provision of attractive and welcoming spaces, the building itself will convey a message of inclusion."

Colgate's future scientists see things perhaps a bit more simply. Darcy Gordon '08 -- who collaborated this summer with chemistry professor Rick Geier -- said she can't wait to work in one of the building's labs. But she has her eye on the big picture as well: "I think the new center will really bring the sciences here to center stage," she said, adding that she is already hooked on chemistry and biology, and will declare one or the other -- or both -- her major. "Hopefully, it will show other students all of the great opportunities that the sciences can offer."

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