Where the Research Never Stops
Greetings from Oberlin. I hope everyone is having a happy, healthy, and productive summer break.
While many of Oberlin’s buildings are quiet these days, the Oberlin College Science Center has been buzzing. The excitement stems in part from the news that Katie Oertel, associate professor of chemistry, has been named a 2013 Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. Katie is one of only seven professors in the country to receive this honor.
The Dreyfus Foundation makes these awards each year to promising scholars at an early stage in their academic careers in the chemical sciences at predominately undergraduate institutions. The recipients are recognized for their accomplishments in scholarly research with undergraduates and their commitment to high-quality teaching. The award carries a five-year, unrestricted research grant of $60,000.
Katie’s area of interest is described by the Dreyfus Foundation as “Materials Old and New: Solvothermal Synthesis of Complex Oxides and their Role in Corrosion Mechanisms.” Congratulations to Katie and her colleagues in chemistry and biochemistry.
Compared to other Oberlin classroom buildings, which are lightly trafficked during the summer, our science center is a beehive of activity. This year, for example, more than 90 students are on campus, working with faculty on scientific research. Though this undergraduate research occurs outside the academic year, it allows students and faculty to work even more closely together on research.
This summer, not only are students learning how to work in a lab, but they’re also learning how to report on their findings, with departments gathering every week for student presentations. In September, posters displaying the findings of all student and faculty summer research will on be display in the Science Center’s Perlik Commons.
Oberlin is a powerhouse science school. Professors and students collaborating on research has been a hallmark of science education at Oberlin since Charles Martin Hall’s discovery of the modern process for extracting aluminum from bauxite was aided by Hall’s work with legendary chemistry professor Frank Fanning Jewett.
Oberlin’s strength in the sciences was highlighted this past spring when I received information about the number of Oberlin graduates who are currently members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. This data was compiled by Bill Schopf, from the Class of 1963, and Rich Lenski from the Class of 1977. Bill is a professor of evolution and paleobiology at UCLA. Rich is a MacArthur Fellow and a professor of evolutionary biology at Michigan State.
Both are members of the academy. So are 19 other Oberlin grads including Nobel laureate Stanley Cohen—the great biochemist and physiologist from the Class of 1945. Those 21 scientists account for one percent of the total National Academy of Sciences membership. For a school Oberlin’s size to produce so many top scientists is astonishing. No other liberal arts college comes anywhere close.
Why does Oberlin produce so many superb scientists? Because for more than a century, we have had science professors who are committed to teaching, to research, and to staying current in their fields. From the day a student walks into an Oberlin science classroom or lab, even for an introductory course, he or she is working closely with a first-rate scientist.
Even as first years, our students get opportunities to become engaged in independent research. Students at larger universities usually don’t get those opportunities until they are juniors or seniors, if then. So at Oberlin, students start becoming scientists the moment they enter an introductory course.
But that is only part of what makes studying science at Oberlin such an exceptional opportunity. Because this is Oberlin, students are also engaged with the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts. That engagement broadens their thinking. It pushes them to look at the world from multiple perspectives. They learn to see connections between disciplines. They come to see how science, music, history, politics, economics, art, and literature interact. That enhances their creativity, and their critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities. While they may not be here in Oberlin, faculty and students in the other disciplines in the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as in the Conservatory of Music, are pursuing their own scholarly research, practicing, and performing.
Oberlin’s people are passionate about their fields of study. That is one of the reasons more of our graduates go on to earn PhDs than those of any other four-year baccalaureate college in the country. We have led that category for many years. About one-third of those PhDs are in science.
So the next time someone tells you how nice it must be for college professors and students to “take the summer off,” think about the Oberlin College Science Center where the research never stops.