Of x-ray diffractometers and other abstruse matters

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This "Household Words" column appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

The nearest that most of us will get to a Nobel Prize is reading a book by a previous winner or--if one is fortunate enough to be at Macalester--attending a convocation lecture by Kofi Annan or Toni Morrison. Mary Montgomery, an associate professor in our Biology Department, recently got considerably closer: she is a longtime colleague of Drs. Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, whose work on RNA interference led to their being awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Professor Montgomery is a co-author of the groundbreaking 1998 paper that ultimately resulted in the prize.

In addition to being an extraordinary honor for a member of our faculty, this accomplishment is a useful reminder of the quality of scientific education and research that occur at Macalester. Too often those who are unfamiliar with first-rate liberal arts colleges assume that they are "softer" on science than are research universities or technical colleges; in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It is certainly the case that our course of study is broader and more diverse than those found at more specialized institutions and more focused on undergraduates than those found at large universities. But the science that we do is rigorous and state-of-the-art, and the results are impressive.

Thomas R. Cech, Nobel laureate in chemistry and president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, demonstrates in an analysis published in 1999 that liberal arts colleges are "about twice as productive as the average institution in training eventual Ph.D.'s" in science. 1 Cech concludes that this is not in spite but because of the practices at liberal arts colleges: the smaller classes, the more diverse curriculum, the focus on pedagogy and, perhaps above all, the emphasis on undergraduate research.

Currently at Macalester about one in four students majors in one of the natural sciences--for us, defined as biology, chemistry, cognitive and neuroscience studies, geology, physics and psychology--or in mathematics or computer science. Another 35 students are majoring in environmental studies, which has a strong science component. All students are required to complete an eight-credit distribution requirement in science and mathematics and, newly effective in the fall of 2007, an additional requirement in quantitative reasoning. In short, we are working both to train a large cohort of experts in the sciences and to provide an even larger group of students with the degree of scientific and quantitative fluency necessary for engaged citizenship.

During the summer of 2006, 57 Macalester students undertook research projects in the science division with 23 different faculty mentors. Another nine students undertook summer research off-campus through nationally competitive programs. Not surprisingly, 14 Mac graduates have been awarded graduate fellowships by the National Science Foundation since 2000--among the highest totals of any liberal arts college in the country--and 86 alumni completed doctoral degrees in science, technology or mathematics between 2000 and 2004, with the number trending upward.

Such outcomes are especially noteworthy given the absence at Macalester of graduate assistants and given the sheer costs of teaching and research in the sciences, costs that are more easily borne by large universities with massive amounts of external funding. At Macalester (and I confess that this is still difficult for me to believe), we currently have only a single endowed professorship that belongs to the natural sciences, the O.T. Walter Professorship in Biology held by Jan Serie. Fortunately, our science faculty have managed to generate nearly $6.5 million in outside support during the past decade, and the college has been able to commit significant funds from the operating budget, the endowment and gifts to strengthen our work in the sciences and upgrade our science facilities. But when your equipment includes a continuous-wave ring laser, a DNA sequencer, a short-pulse Ti:sapphire laser, an X-ray diffractometer and a magneto-optical cryostat (don't even ask), the costs of sustaining successful programs will remain a challenge.

It is important for all in the Macalester community to understand the nature of our work in the natural sciences and mathematics in part because the broader public perception of that work is so often inaccurate. In the recently issued Spellings Commission report on the future of higher education in America--a deeply flawed document about which I will write in a future column--colleges and universities are taken to task for failing to "serve the changing needs of a knowledge economy" and neglecting to develop "new pedagogies, curricula and technologies to improve learning, particularly in the area of science and mathematical literacy." 2

American higher education is a remarkably varied enterprise with abundant strengths and much room for improvement. Even as we work to bring about those improvements, policy makers should recognize, and perhaps learn from, the efforts of colleges such as Macalester, where the difficult work of science and mathematical education is and has long been successful and is continuously evolving to meet the needs of not just our students, but of the world they will shape.

1 "Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education?" Daedalus, Winter 1999: 197.

2 A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, September 2006, 34.