Issue Date: January 24, 2011
Jane Liu, an assistant professor of chemistry at Drew University, in Madison, N.J., has fond memories of her first research experience as a biochemistry major at a liberal arts college. “My lab bench was right next to my principal investigator’s, and we worked side by side for a year and a half,” she recalls. “That’s something I wasn’t able to recapture as a grad student or postdoc in a huge lab, where I had to make an appointment to see my PI.” When the time came to apply for a faculty position, Liu wanted to be able to re-create that experience for her own students, and she knew that a liberal arts school such as Drew was the ideal fit.
Long hailed as havens for dedicated teachers, liberal arts colleges have earned a reputation for prioritizing the nurturing of fledgling scientists over research productivity. With usually fewer than 5,000 students, these four-year colleges provide undergraduates with a well-rounded education in the humanities, arts, and sciences. Intimate class sizes provide ample opportunity for one-on-one interactions between students and professors.
On the other hand, liberal arts colleges suffer from the perception that crippling teaching loads and substandard facilities stifle research innovation. Although the more than 200 liberal arts schools in the U.S. vary in endowment, faculty teaching obligations, and publication record, an increased emphasis on research is creating unprecedented opportunities for chemists who enjoy both research and teaching.
“Over the last 20 years, there’s been a big shift,” says Jeffrey L. Katz, an associate professor and chair of the chemistry department at Colby College, in Waterville, Maine. Previously, only a small number of faculty at liberal arts schools performed research, he explains. Now, high-quality research is becoming a job expectation.
In many ways, liberal arts schools offer unique environments to carry out innovative, interdisciplinary research, according to Katz and others. Professors rave about the quality of students accepted by liberal arts colleges. Moreover, broad course requirements prevent students from becoming too narrowly focused on any one field.
“Students at liberal arts institutions are taking classes in a wide variety of fields, so they’re always trying to tie what they’re learning in chemistry to what they’re learning in history or psychology,” says Beth R. J. Abdella, an assistant professor of chemistry at St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minn. “And they pull us into that kind of thinking.”
Such wide-ranging interests can foster interesting collaborations between the arts and sciences. For example, at Simmons College, a private women’s college in Boston, chemistry majors can choose to perform their senior independent study in the research laboratory of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In addition, students working in the lab of Simmons chemistry professor Leonard J. Soltzberg use matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight (MALDI-TOF) mass spectrometry to identify dyes and pigments in museum artifacts. “Our students get very excited about museum collaborations because they like working on real-world problems,” Soltzberg says.
Many professors at liberal arts colleges value the personal relationships they form with students. Professors spend a lot of time in the lab training students and working at the bench because they usually lack technicians, graduate students, and postdocs. “My colleagues at large research universities don’t find themselves in the lab very often,” says Richard D. Broene, a professor and chair of the chemistry department at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. “At a liberal arts college, you are the person who carries out the research, and I like that.”
Because research at liberal arts colleges is often viewed as an extension of a faculty member’s teaching rather than their set-in-stone identity, professors have more flexibility to explore new research directions than they would at most large universities. Trained as an X-ray crystallographer, Soltzberg studied crystal growth dynamics and morphology during his first few years at Simmons. Then he became interested in far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics, so he stopped working on crystals to pursue that topic. A few years later, while reading about mass spectrometry to help write a grant to fund a new MALDI-TOF mass spectrometer for the department, Soltzberg became interested in the technology and switched gears yet again. Each time, he was able to obtain grants in addition to internal college funding, with the full support of the college administration. “I can’t imagine somebody at a major university totally changing their research direction two or three times over several years,” he says.
This flexibility extends into the classroom, as well, where professors often experiment with teaching styles and course content to discover the formula that works best for them and their students. “At a large university where you’re teaching hundreds of students at a time, you don’t take risks like that, to try something brand new, but here you do,” says St. Olaf’s Abdella, who conducts research on the most effective strategies for instructing chemistry undergrads. She takes great pleasure in designing new courses, such as a three-course sequence of integrated chemistry and biology. “There’s a lot of freedom to be an innovator,” she says.
But with freedom comes responsibility. “To get tenure, you have to be excellent at both teaching and research; one can’t compensate for the other,” says David E. Hansen, a professor of chemistry and dean of the joint science department at Claremont McKenna College, in Claremont, Calif. “You really need to have a foot in both worlds.”
When classes are in session, however, it can be difficult for undergrads and professors alike to find time for research. As a result, progress often moves at a snail’s pace. “It can be a little frustrating,” Liu says. “You have to be really conscious about breaking the projects you assign to students into small, manageable pieces. Otherwise, you get to the end of the semester and have nothing to show for it but wasted time, energy, and resources.” Research is most productive during winter and summer breaks, when professors and students can work in the lab full-time. For most liberal arts professors, a good year may produce one or two publications.
To help find balance, many professors strive to make their research a continuation of their teaching. For example, three years ago, Simmons College began to implement the Undergraduate Laboratory Renaissance program, funded by a grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation, a philanthropic organization that invests in undergraduate education, among other causes. Standard lab experiments for chemistry majors are being replaced with actual projects from the research program of the instructor. In the sophomore analytical chemistry course, for instance, students collected water and soil samples from sites around Boston to assess pollution levels. “The students are very motivated by the fact that they’re participating in meaningful work that could be published, and if it is, they’ll be coauthors on the paper,” Soltzberg says.
Small chemistry departments at most liberal arts colleges mean that each faculty member is the resident expert in his or her particular discipline. The resulting isolation can make for a difficult adjustment for a new faculty member accustomed to bouncing ideas off multiple colleagues around the lab. Therefore, networking and collaborating with outside experts is vital. “I spend a lot of time on the phone talking to people to get ideas about what we should do next,” Bowdoin’s Broene says. “You have to be willing to make connections and go to conferences to keep yourself engaged.”
Money can also be an issue. Like teaching requirements, lab start-up packages and internal funding for research vary substantially among liberal arts colleges. Additional support from specialized grants for undergraduate institutions or from industry is available but generally provides lower amounts of funding than comparable grants to university researchers.
In her first year as a faculty member at Drew University, Liu received a National Institutes of Health Academic Research Enhancement Award (R15), a grant that provides up to $300,000 of support for biomedical research projects at institutions that receive minimal NIH funding, such as liberal arts colleges. The R15 grant allowed Liu to purchase basic instrumentation such as a real-time polymerase chain reaction machine, a high-throughput plate reader, and an infrared imaging system.
Despite the challenges, competition for tenure-track faculty positions at liberal arts colleges is fierce, especially at the 50 schools ranked highest by U.S. News & World Report. Whereas in the past, a candidate’s research track record was not highly scrutinized and postdoctoral study was not always required, nowadays, “the top liberal arts schools are looking for the same type of Ph.D. and postdoctoral pedigree as the large universities,” Katz says.
“If you want my job, you should do a postdoc at a large research university in a group with a high profile,” says Casey H. Londergan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania. He notes that a rigorous postdoctoral experience helps researchers develop the independence and resourcefulness they’ll need to conduct research at a liberal arts college.
Daniela Kohen, an associate professor of chemistry at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minn., agrees. “The hardest part of my job is figuring out how to do research in this environment,” she says. “Liberal arts colleges want phenomenal teachers, and the whole environment helps you become the best teacher you can possibly be, but you’re mostly on your own when it comes to research.”
With high-quality research now a job expectation for liberal arts professors, choosing a project that is cutting edge, yet sustainable over long periods of relative inactivity, is key. “When we’re hiring, we really look at what the candidates are proposing for research because it gives us an idea of their knowledge of a liberal arts situation,” St. Olaf’s Abdella says. “If they’re sending us the same proposals that they’re sending to large universities, it’s pretty obvious that it’s way beyond the scope of reality here.”
Although researchers at liberal arts colleges must adjust their expectations to a slower pace and sometimes less plentiful resources, that doesn’t mean the quality of research has to suffer. “Some people have a misconception that to work at a liberal arts school, you really need to dumb down your research,” says Liu. “But I feel like what I’m doing at Drew is what I would be doing if I were at a large university. The biggest difference is really just the timing.”
Liu guided the direction of her postdoctoral research to ease the transition to a liberal arts college. During her postdoc, she used high-throughput sequencing to discover small noncoding RNAs of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, the causative agent of cholera. Her research at Drew involves studying the identified RNA molecules at the molecular level to determine their roles in the bacterium’s life cycle. “I made the decision not to study infectious pathways because that would normally mean using an animal model,” Liu says. Although Drew University has an animal facility, Liu felt that the learning curve of working with infant mice would be too steep for undergrads who may spend only a few weeks in her lab in the summer or during their senior year.
Finding time for both cutting-edge research and teaching may feel like a perpetual juggling act, but many professors at liberal arts colleges wouldn’t have it any other way. The opportunity to educate and inspire undergraduates in the classroom and the lab, launching them on their way to successful careers in science, is something that isn’t easily replicated at a large university, they believe. Kohen spreads this message when she attends national research conferences on behalf of the Liberal Arts College Association for Faculty Inclusion, a consortium of liberal arts colleges working to diversify the pool of applicants for faculty positions.
“Many of the grad students and postdocs I talk to went to liberal arts colleges where their professors taught insane hours, and that was it,” Kohen says. “I’m there to tell them that they don’t have to give up doing research. They’ll need to change their mind-set, true, but they can still do great research.”
- Chemical & Engineering News
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