Front Page Lewis & Clark Faculty and Students Win Big in the Sciences

Lewis & Clark Faculty and Students Win Big in the Sciences

With a recent surge in national grants and student awards, recognition of Lewis & Clark’s achievements in the sciences is growing rapidly. A leader in natural and mathematical sciences, the Portland liberal arts college has been awarded more than $2.2 million in science-based grants for faculty research projects and programs in the past year. Funders include the National Science Foundation, the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. And, this month, the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) awarded Lewis & Clark a $1.3 million grant. Working closely with undergraduate students, Lewis & Clark faculty shape the next generation of scientists, including three Lewis & Clark juniors who recently won Barry M. Goldwater scholarships.

“The quality of our academic program and faculty is attracting the attention of the most prestigious grant makers across the country,” said Julio de Paula, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of chemistry. “These grants will provide more opportunities for our undergraduate students to be full partners with Lewis & Clark’s faculty in the creation of new scientific knowledge through research.”

The Goldwater scholarships awarded to Allison Akagi, Claire Fassio, and Conor Jacobs will support their research in biochemistry, molecular biology, and chemistry. Goldwater scholarships are widely considered the most prestigious award in the United States for undergraduates preparing for careers in the sciences. Lewis & Clark was one of only four liberal arts institutions in the country to have three students earn scholarships, surpassing even science-driven research institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology in its number of recipients.

HHMI $1.3 Million Grant: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Sciences

Aware of growing concerns among U.S. leaders that the country’s global leadership in the sciences may be waning, Lewis & Clark faculty members are finding ways to attract more students into the sciences, strengthen the relationships between science fields, and prepare educators to teach K-12 science more effectively.

“If the United States wants to stay competitive in the global market and be a leader in solving some of the biggest science questions of our time, it is critical that we improve our science education system,” said Deborah Lycan, professor of biology and program director for the HHMI-funded project. “We need curricula that draws more students in to the sciences, curricula that is multi-faceted, and science teachers who can capture students’ imaginations before they lose interest in science altogether. ”

The HHMI-funded project will enhance an interdisciplinary approach among the sciences and expand the pipeline of students heading into the field through a comprehensive series of programs and partnerships with Portland-area educational institutions. Project goals include the following:

  • Develop curricula in interdisciplinary science, with special attention to bioinformatics, biophysics, and neuroscience.
  • Broaden access to research opportunities for undergraduate students, who will work in laboratories at Lewis & Clark and, through a collaborative arrangement, at Oregon Health & Science University.
  • Develop innovative interdisciplinary science courses for nonscience majors.
  • Develop a K-12 outreach program for science education in collaboration with the Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling.
  • Develop an international outreach program for science education, with special attention to collaboration with institutions in East Africa.
  • Host a teaching postdoctoral fellows program in the sciences.

The Scientific Edge in a Liberal Arts Education

A science education at a liberal arts institution offers several advantages to students and the global community. Solving today’s science crises requires scientists who understand the interconnectedness and appreciate the diverse world around them.

“Scientists trained in the tradition of the liberal arts understand the socioeconomic and political contexts of the problems being tackled and are more likely to find solutions that affirm human rights, protect the environment, and raise standards of living across the globe,” de Paula said.

Lycan points to the global component of the HHMI grant as one example of how a liberal arts education connects science undergraduates to the world around them in ways traditional research-based institutions cannot or will not. She plans to build a team-taught computational biology/bioinformatics course in collaboration with scientists in Kenya, where Lewis & Clark currently administers an overseas study program focusing on East Africa’s ecology.

“The Africa bioinformatics course is an innovative idea that has the potential to provide students with a state-of-the-art science education, linked to real humanitarian issues of world health,” Lycan said. “Ultimately, we hope to provide a prototype for how science education could be made more relevant and more attractive to students, where they can see how to put a certain intellectual skill set to use to solve problems they care passionately about.”

Barry M. Goldwater scholars find liberal arts education the perfect fit for studying science

Attending a liberal arts college has enriched scientific studies for Lewis & Clark juniors Allison Akagi, Claire Fassio, and Conor Jacobs, who were awarded Barry M. Goldwater scholarships. The Goldwater program supports study in the fields of mathematics, engineering, and the natural sciences.

Fassio and Jacobs, both majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology and spending their spring semester studying overseas, say they have gained an international perspective that can only benefit their future work as scientists, when they will face complex global challenges such as pandemics and climate change.

Conor Jacobs“Studying science at a liberal arts school allows one to be exposed to a wider range of topics and to better contextualize one’s field of study in relation to other fields of knowledge,” Jacobs wrote in an e-mail from Beijing. “I can say that this opportunity to study abroad has definitely provided me with a new global perspective.” While he has not decided on a graduate school yet, he is interested in a Ph.D. program in neuroscience.

Claire FassioFassio, who plans to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology and then teach and conduct research, agreed. “I appreciate that Lewis & Clark encouraged me to pursue interests outside of the sciences,” Fassio wrote in an e-mail. “I’m in Siena, Italy, this semester, living with an Italian host family, studying Italian, and taking courses in art history and the history of the European Union.”

In addition to rich course offerings, Lewis & Clark’s research opportunities have allowed these young scientists to work with faculty members in roles that at larger universities would be limited to graduate students. For example, Fassio has teamed up with Lycan to study protein synthesis in cells, and Jacobs works with Janis Lochner, chair of biochemistry and molecular biology, investigating the molecular mechanisms of memory. Akagi has collaborated with Louis Kuo, professor of chemistry, on research investigating the degradation of phosphate neurotoxin, which may lay the foundation for designing safer waste disposal of nerve agents. Their research is about to be published in the journal Organometallics.

Allison Akagi“In my opinion, the largest benefit of studying science at a small liberal arts college is the opportunity to speak and work directly with the faculty,” said Akagi, a chemistry major. “Rather than go to a teaching assistant, I can go to the professor of the class. A small liberal arts college provides both a strong theoretical background as well as hands-on experience.”