St. Paul, Minn. — When faculty are selected for prestigious fellowships and receive financial support for their research and work, Macalester students often benefit right along with them. That’s certainly the case for assistant chemistry professor Dr. Leah Witus and her 2021 Cottrell Scholar Award. Each year Research Corporation for Science Advancement identifies 25 outstanding teacher-scholars in chemistry, physics and astronomy. These Cottrell Scholars receive professional development support and $100,000 toward their proposals, which incorporate both research and science education. 

As a new Cottrell Scholar, Prof. Witus has big plans for her students, her lab and her classroom, and she shared some of the details. 

What will the $100,000 award allow you to do? 

The most important thing is that I can use part of the funding to pay Macalester students to work on my project during the summer. Being able to include them in the research means they not only get to participate in moving the research forward, but through that process they get training to become independent researchers themselves. And that’s really the most rewarding for me, training students and seeing them develop as researchers and then go forward from Macalester and go to top graduate programs and top medical programs. 

And, of course, part of it will also go to supplies, because chemistry research is not cheap! 

Your winning proposal has two components: one in the lab and one in the classroom. Let’s start with the research part. The title is: “Investigation of Beta-Hairpin Hydrolytic Peptides.” Help the non-chemists out, what will you be researching? 

Okay, so enzymes are proteins that catalyze chemical reactions, and we have them all over. Our cells are full of different enzymes, catalyzing all different kinds of chemical reactions. 

But enzymes are also really useful outside of their biological contexts – for instance, as therapeutics, for synthesizing new drug molecules,  for environmental remediation, all these different applications. The problem is that enzymes often aren’t stable outside of their biological environment. 

And so we’re studying short proteins called peptides. They’re easier to make, and they’re more stable in different environments. The problem is they often don’t have the three dimensional structure that the full-size enzyme has. And so what our research is trying to figure out is how you can introduce small folds into the peptide to give it a little bit more structure like an enzyme has, and then study how that change affects its ability to catalyze chemical reactions. Students involved in this research learn a lot of chemistry techniques and the fun part is they get to do experiments that we don’t know the answers to and be part of the scientific discovery process!  

As a Cottrell Scholar, you’ll also be developing an advanced science communications course. What are you envisioning? 

There are two parts to it. One is how to communicate within the profession of being a scientist, because as a scientist, you have to present your work through oral presentations, PowerPoint presentations, publishing, writing proposals, the list goes on. And I think our students — even though they have a liberal arts education, so they learn writing in other courses — they don’t learn those specific conventions of writing or communicating as a scientist. So we’re going to dedicate some time to getting some training. How do you do it? What are the formats? What are the conventions? 

And then the other half of the course is communicating science with the general public. Take social media. How do you combat scientific misconceptions and distrust of science through social media channels? I see scientists on Twitter trying to communicate complex ideas in simple ways, so I wanted to do a course where we kind of analyze: How well is it working? What are the elements of it that help it work well? 

You’re doing a little of that yourself with the wonderful series of animated videos you created on your YouTube channel PreschoolPhD … 

Yes! I wrote the proposal for the course on scientific communication in June and didn’t start making animated science explainer videos until September, so I think I was inspired by designing the course to actually try it myself. And now that I have a little bit of experience, we could look at this as a case study! How effective are these videos for conveying scientific content? How do you get them in front of broad audiences? I don’t know, but maybe we’ll discuss these questions in the class.

When will students be able to apply for research opportunities and take your new course? 

Due to the pandemic, everything is a little behind schedule, and although research is starting up again, it’s a slow process to ramp back up to full capacity. So the opportunities for students to get involved in the research will be in 2022, which is when we can expect the course to be offered as well. 

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February 25 2021

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