January 2005

Teaching Science at Liberal Arts Institutions

Pioneering in the Field of Psycho-Oncology

Investigating Infections from Multiple Perspectives

Increasing Knowledge About Disease Processes

Research at the Nexus of Clinical and Developmental Psychology

Opening Up the Box

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Bryn Mawr College
A newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

Teaching Science at Liberal-Arts Institutions
By Dorothy Wright

When Tekla Harms '77 was a recruiter in the Bryn Mawr College Admissions Office in 1978, she told potential science majors, "You'd think if you wanted to be a scientist you'd have to study at a big research institution. It isn't so." Indeed, while liberal-arts institutions cannot compete with large research universities in terms of absolute numbers of science majors, grants and facilities, they have a strong, yet not widely appreciated, role in preparing the next generation of scientists. In fact, liberal-arts colleges produce graduates who go on to earn doctoral degrees and achieve distinguished careers at double the rate of other four-year institutions, according to Thomas R. Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, Md., and 1989 Nobel laureate in chemistry, in a 1999 Daedalus article titled "Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education?"

Tekla Harms
Tekla Harms '77

Harms is among six Bryn Mawr alumnae on the faculty at Amherst, Bates, Franklin & Marshall, Kenyon and Lewis & Clark colleges and Wesleyan University who maintain that you don't have to join a large research institution if you want a rewarding life as a teacher and scientist. In particular, they cite collaborative relationships with undergraduate students in the classroom and research setting and the opportunity to apply innovative teaching methods in an environment that highly values pedagogy. They also acknowledge the challenge of balancing the demands for effective teaching, productive research and institutional service.

"I've never taught anywhere but Amherst College and don't expect to do so," says Harms, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Sciences and chair of the college's geology department in Amherst, Mass. "They're going to wheel me out in a coffin."

In the mid-'80s, Harms applied for many tenure-track positions, including some at large universities. "A lot of folks ask me why I picked Amherst, and I have to be absolutely honest — it was my one job offer, and I took it!" she says. "But I am smart enough to know that I got offered the best job in the country."

Harms' use of the superlative is partly tongue-in-cheek. In fact, when asked why she loves her job, she begins, "It's the same answer everyone at a small, rigorous, liberal-arts college will give you."

Collaborative Endeavors

"First of all," Harms says, "the students are brilliant, and they are absolutely a pleasure to work with because they want to work. With few exceptions, they understand they are here for a purpose and that a great investment is being made in them."

This attitude is obvious in the classroom. Harms explains, "At an institution like Amherst or Bryn Mawr, the classroom is a collaborative endeavor. I've even had students at Amherst ask me why I didn't ask them to do more."

It is not because she is an easy-going professor, Harms hastens to add with good humor. "My nickname here is 'Attila the Harms.' I'm Bryn Mawr all the way: I ask a lot of these students and hold them to high standards."

Annalisa Crannell  
Annalisa Crannell '86

Collaboration between undergraduates and professors extends to research, where both have hands-on involvement. "There are times when it is hard to tell when the teaching ends and the research starts," says Annalisa Crannell '86, an associate professor of mathematics at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "I have written many papers because of something that started in a class."

In her search for a tenure-track position in 1992, Crannell focused on small liberal-arts colleges on the East Coast. "I really wanted a place where the most important thing was teaching: classroom teaching, research mentoring — working with students in the many ways that professors interact with students. That was the most important thing."

Ishita Mukerji

Ishita Mukerji '83

Photo by: Bill Burkhart

Crannell, who specializes in dynamical systems and chaos theory, found what she sought at Franklin & Marshall. Extending a quip by mathematician Paul Erdös, who is known for his astounding research output, she observes, "Erdös taught us that a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems. I've found that coffeehouses can turn math classes into research teams, and all of a sudden, my students have become my colleagues."

Moreover, undergraduates often contribute fresh ideas and approaches. "They'll ask me a question from left field, and I'll say, 'What? I never thought about it like that before!'" says Ishita Mukerji '83, an associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry in the Molecular Biophysics Program at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn. "I also love the enthusiasm they bring to research. It is often their first research experience, and if they 'get the bug,' it's really exciting to see."

Common Research Goals

These scientists and mathematicians often design their research programs to meet their undergraduate students' goals, as well as their own. "I have tailored my research program to a field where both I and my students can succeed," says Joan L. Slonczewski '77, a professor of biology at Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio. "I have selected a research organism, Escherichia coli, that has a lot of interesting fundamental questions about its biology but is relatively easy to grow."

Joan L. Slonczewski  
Joan L. Slonczewski '77

Slonczewski's research focuses on the effects of pH stress on E. coli. "I choose limited questions that can be answered in a student project," she says, "and I have the knack of choosing problems at the right time and the right point in the field's development such that undergraduates can make a contribution."

For example, Slonczewski has only recently expanded into proteomic research. "I had avoided that area until the experimental technique reached the point where a student could effectively conduct experiments and finish research in a semester," she explains. "My lab has since become one of the foremost in the world at conducting proteomic research in E. coli. Now we're doing the same thing with DNA microarrays in E. coli."

A microscope slide that contains all copies of an organism's genes, microarrays enable a researcher to determine in a single experiment which genes make the RNA products that create the proteins responsible for cell function. Funded by a $1.5 million Howard Hughes Foundation grant, Kenyon students collaborate with their peers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "Our students conduct the biology here, and I send them to Madison to conduct the microarrays in the university's Gene Expression Center," Slonczewski says. "It's a win-win situation."

Mother of Invention

Research programs are also designed to avoid being "scooped" by competitors at large research institutions. Physical chemist Barbara A. Balko '84 worked with Yuan T. Lee, 1986 Nobel laureate in chemistry, as a doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley, and as a postdoctoral research associate of former Bryn Mawr Assistant Professor of Chemistry Geraldine Richmond at the University of Oregon. "After working at Berkeley and the University of Oregon, it is difficult for me when I think of a project that might be the next logical step in our research and realize I would be competing with groups at large institutions that could complete the research much more quickly," Balko says.

Barbara A. Balko
Barbara A. Balko '84

As often said, necessity is the mother of invention. "I have to devise a project that another researcher could not as easily come up with if I want to have a unique and important paper," Balko says. "Moreover, it has to be something an undergraduate could do, and it has to be done with the equipment and funding I have available."

As a result, Balko's research interests have shifted toward environmental issues from her graduate work on energetic and geometric requirements for simple reactions and postdoctoral research on interactions between light and semiconductors. At Lewis & Clark College, Portland, where Balko is an associate professor of physical chemistry and chair of the chemistry department, she says, "My students and I are studying the reactivity of various minerals, which can ultimately be used to help environmental engineers design better systems for degrading groundwater contaminants."

Slonczewski, based on her experience reviewing National Science Foundation (NSF) grant proposals, believes the challenges of research at large and small institutions are qualitatively similar. "The difference," she says, "is a matter of scale. If you are at a major research university you have to have the ingenuity to keep up 10 projects on four or five grants, whereas at Kenyon I have to maintain one project on one grant with perhaps a couple of helper grants. Wherever you are, it's a competitive business, and you have to make similar judgments.

"It's also a matter of distributing your time," Slonczewski continues. "At a large research institution, you are spending all of your time writing grants and traveling. At a small college, you spend more of your time teaching and in close interaction with students. In a way, it's a good thing because in teaching you are continually renewing your knowledge of the breadth of the field as a whole."

Finances and Facilities

Obtaining grants is very competitive; however, there are sources of grant money available to undergraduate researchers. "I located and took advantage of these at NSF, the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Foundation," Slonczewski says. "In fact, I think the success rate in obtaining grants is not that different at liberal arts colleges and big universities."

Hong Lin  
Hong Lin, Ph.D. '91

In fact, Hong Lin, Ph.D. '91, a professor of physics at Bates College, Lewiston, Me., is among those who say they have had sustained support for their research. "I started with the Research Corporation, a private funding agency," she says. "After two years, we had some publications, so I submitted grant proposals to NSF, whose reviewers take into account the high teaching load of submitters at undergraduate institutions when writing their evaluations. I have received two research grants from NSF and have recently submitted a third one in a new research area, for which we will need new instruments." Lin requires a spectrometer to study the use of optical feedback to control the operation of a new type of semiconductor laser, the vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser.

Both capital investment and maintenance of equipment can be challenging issues. "It's not only that a college can't afford to buy a $5 million instrument; it's also that most $5 million instruments are pretty finicky and managing their maintenance is a challenge," Harms says. "It's too time-consuming to do it yourself, a college doesn't have the funds to hire a full-time technician on your behalf, and you may not be able to keep your grantsmanship going consistently enough to pay a full-time technician that way."

Nevertheless, these scientists say they have access to the equipment and facilities they and their students need to conduct leading-edge research, if not in-house, then through local academic consortia or through collaborations with other institutions. And their institutions are making investments in facilities, although they may be long in coming. For example, at Amherst , a new geology building and natural-history museum are under construction to replace its 1940s-era geology facilities (which had been converted from an 1855 gymnasium); and Kenyon recently opened new chemistry, mathematics and physics facilities and expanded those for biology, psychology and neuroscience.

A Balancing Act

The expectation that faculty of liberal-arts institutions must be both excellent teachers and productive researchers translates into a difficult balancing act. Few will argue that research productivity is not affected by the typical course load. "I thought I would be continuously melding my research and teaching, and I found that's really difficult to do," Balko observes. "I need a good two to three hours of straight time to do intensive research, and when I am teaching, that chunk of time is really hard to find." Like other liberal-arts faculty, she concentrates on research over the summer, during semester breaks and while on sabbaticals.

Graduate students, who often perform the bulk of the research at large universities, are few and far between at liberal-arts colleges. "There is absolutely no question that in my lifetime my research productivity will be much lower than it would have been if I had a constant stream of graduate students," observes Harms, who performs detailed structural analyses to understand the evolution of mountain belts and the interactions of plate boundaries in creating those belts.

At Wesleyan, there are 140 graduate students in the natural sciences, mathematics and psychology."I think it changes the dynamic a little in the sense that we have graduate students in our labs to help us both with our research effort and the training of undergraduate students," says Mukerji, who investigates protein-DNA and protein-protein interactions using a variety of spectroscopic approaches, including UV resonance Raman spectroscopy. "Still, Wesleyan's expectation that you are going to be excellent in both teaching and research is a tall order."

While liberal-arts colleges have high expectations for pedagogy, they also offer opportunities to teach "outside of the box". For example, Lin developed an intensive five-week alternative introduction to physics, which is designed to increase the number of physics majors among women and minorities. Crannell offers interdisciplinary courses on mathematics and the arts. Balko developed an accelerated chemistry course. Slonczewski, who teaches a course on biology and science fiction for nonscience majors, observes, "Some of the large universities are introducing special interdisciplinary programs where professors do that, but it's still pretty rare."

Liberal-arts institutions also have high expectations of administrative service from their faculty. Numerous committees, task forces and, of course, rotating department chairs compete with teaching and research. "A former dean once said that the role of an Amherst College professor is to juggle many balls, and the miracle is that we do," Harms recalls. "At this point, I have a lot of administrative duties. At other times in my career, I have done fewer of these tasks and more research. Still, I consider it an investment in my college."

It is interesting to note that the six institutions represented by our sources were among the 50 liberal-arts colleges identified as the best "science-active" colleges in the United States by a 1987 Oberlin College report, Maintaining America's Scientific Productivity. (Naturally, Bryn Mawr made the list, too.) That may have a lot to do with the satisfaction these science and math faculty members have with their institutions and careers.

As Bryn Mawr alumnae, these scientists are products of a liberal-arts education by dedicated teacher-scholars. When they consider the road not taken, they say they are contented with the one they chose. As Mukerji puts it, "I feel I have the best of both worlds."


About Our Sources

Barbara A. Balko '84 is an associate professor of physical chemistry and chair of the chemistry department at Lewis & Clark College. Widely published in physical chemistry and environmental journals, Balko recently teamed with an Oregon Institute of Technology researcher to lead faculty and students in developing a CD-ROM, MERL: Metals for Environmental Remediation and Learning. Released in August 2002, the free software has been distributed to high-school and college teachers and environmental consultants. Balko earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley .

Annalisa K. Crannell '86 is an associate professor of mathematics at Franklin & Marshall College. In addition to her research, Crannell is a mentor/consultant in teaching for the Mathematical Association of America and has developed curricula on math and the arts and writing. She is also active in the American Mathematical Society. Crannell earned her Ph.D. at Brown University, Providence, R.I.

Tekla A. Harms '77 is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Sciences and chair of the geology department at Amherst College. She has also served as acting director of Amherst 's Pratt Museum of Natural History. Harms is a widely published geologist, and many of her publications were co-authored by undergraduates. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Hong Lin, Ph.D. '91, is a professor of physics at Bates College. Widely published, her research focuses on laser physics, photorefractive optical devices, and nonlinear dynamics and pattern control in optical systems. She is also interested in curriculum development to increase participation of women and minorities in physics. Lin earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in physics from the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Ishita Mukerji '83 is an associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at Wesleyan University. Active in efforts to advance the representation of women and minorities in science, she has been honored with the National Science Foundation Career Development Award, as well as the Patrick and Catherine Weldon Donaghue Medical Research Foundation Investigator Award. Mukerji earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley.

Joan Slonczewski '77 is a professor of biology at Kenyon College. Widely published, she also serves as a panelist for the Prokaryotic Genetics Study Section of the National Science Foundation. Slonczewski is director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education Program Award, Science Division, at Kenyon. She also is a published science-fiction novelist with a new novel in progress. Slonczewski earned her Ph.D. at Yale University, New Haven, Conn.


Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering and general-interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering and Engineering News Record.

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