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Trial by Science

What began as a faculty research collaboration more than a decade ago has become integrated in — and integral to — the HWS biology and chemistry departments.

BY ANDREW WICKENDEN ’09

science

Jenna Hyman ’23 and Haley Sax ’23 run tests in Professor Mowery’s microbiology lab. PHOTO BY KEVIN COLTON

In courses like organic chemistry or immunology, you won’t find any “canned” labs at HWS. No moot experiments with predetermined outcomes, because “that’s not really an experiment,” says Professor of Biology Sigrid Carle ’84.

Instead, she says, HWS students “get the real experience of being a scientist, the real process,” by working with Carle and her colleagues on cancer-related research projects funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

With Professor of Chemistry Justin Miller, Carle has been studying the anti-cancer properties of certain compounds since the early 2000s. Over the years, their biochemical research has opened a gateway to lab work for scores of students, forming the basis of innovative courses, summer scholarship, independent studies and Honors projects.

“Is what we’re doing scholarship? Is it teaching? Yes, it’s both,” says Miller. “Our teaching is our scholarship and our scholarship is our teaching: there’s no way to disentangle them and we wouldn’t want to. That’s the whole point — students are learning by practicing. I think that’s the best way to teach.”

In the search for new anti-cancer drugs, Miller’s lab synthesizes compounds like those approved for FDA use, tweaking molecules to reveal potential therapeutic uses, which students then test in the cell biology courses taught by Carle. Similarly, Professor of Chemistry Erin Pelkey’s synthetic organic chemistry group develops strategies to identify potential new anticancer agents, which Professor of Biology Patricia Mowery and her students test for cytotoxicity (i.e. cell killing ability).

“Research is a valuable experience, whatever the institution, but at a small liberal arts college we’re able to have a much larger fraction of the student body do research,” says Mowery. “A small school setting allows for a much deeper mentorship.”

Before working in Mowery’s lab, Brianna Hurysz ’20 was planning for a career as a medical practitioner but “quickly realized how much I enjoyed research and solving problems that nobody else has solved yet,” she says. Now pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences at the University of California San Diego, Hurysz says her research experience at HWS not only helped her realize she wanted to go to graduate school, “it also gave me the skills necessary to be competitive” among candidates from large research institutions.

The advantage at HWS, Pelkey says, is that students are in the driver’s seat, which is “an excellent model for education and training, as the students learn by doing real organic chemistry research…They initiate the independent studies, they work together in groups of two and three all year round.”

Matthew Burnett ’20 says the “dynamic environment” of Carle’s lab challenged him to “adapt to situations and address problems as they arise,” which is “extremely beneficial for a future career.” As are the opportunities for students to publish alongside their professors, adds Burnett, who is pursuing his master’s in microbiology and cell sciences at the University of Florida.

For Kaitlynn Sockett ’20, now a chemistry Ph.D. candidate at Boston University, the research that became the foundation of her Honors project “was intimidating,” she says, “but valuable preparation for grad school.” Her time in Pelkey’s research group underscored the importance of being able to “work independently and defend and explain the results.”

As Miller puts it, research at HWS pushes “students to learn a lot and contribute substantially to the project. If they have their goal and have the latitude, they’ll make mistakes but learn from them and come out better trained, better scientists, who know how to think scientifically and problem-solve.”