Willamette University

Blurring an Old Line: Teaching and Research in the Sciences

By Erik Schmidt’05

There’s a classic tug of war in higher education, particularly in the sciences, between hard research and teaching — two equally desirable projects that seem to be, in some inherent way, less than compatible.

Teaching, so it goes, is usually what liberal arts colleges do best. Professors get to know their students from the first day of class and propel them along a nurturing, discursive curricular experience. It’s the “softer” side of science education, where breakthroughs in the lab might take the back burner to a more general engagement with ideas, the growth of academic perspective and mental agility.

On the other hand, top-shelf research — the kind that produces the world’s new solutions, products and processes — often happens within the airy walls of larger research institutions that have the resources to run such programs. The undergraduate students might take their introductory courses from a dot on a far-away podium, but the graduate students work with high-powered faculty who, with appropriately restrained teaching and grading loads, solve pressing contemporary problems. These teams shape the economy of scientific research and productivity.

The notion of these two realms (“silos,” as some faculty call them) is propped up in part by generalizations that don’t apply equally to every school and situation; still, they seem to represent something of a default stance in the U.S. about how academic science is conducted. They are the products of years and years of precedent and the structural norms of higher education in this country.

They’re also past their useful shelf life.

Willamette is one institution that has challenged the dichotomy, using one pursuit to benefit the other. New programs and guiding principles, all tugging at long-held curricular priorities that grow from liberal arts foundations, have begun to demonstrate that smaller colleges can, in fact, be leaders of production at the same time that they are teaching their scientists to be citizens, worldly thinkers, and so forth. Moreover, there are national interest reasons for this to be happening right now.

A handful of current programs and trends at Willamette are good illustrations, even if they don’t account for all the ways in which faculty and students (in plenty of departments, for the record) are erasing these old distinctions. The big idea, which some faculty would just as soon have broadcast from the rooftops, is that deconstructing the boundary between teaching and research benefits both projects.

Citizen Scientists

Stasinos Stavrianeas and Mark Stewart believe in science literacy. The pair of professors — Stavrianeas from exercise science and Stewart from psychology — say that this is the outcome when scientific inquiry is normalized as a popular mode of thought. As young community members gain fluency in science, they gain decision-making skills, become better analyzers and think critically and globally. They are equipped to handle the issues — from stem cell research to climate change to cloning — that will continue to present new challenges for everyone. “F or too long we as a society have mystified science — it’s something that is happening ‘over there’ when it should be accessible to everybody,” Stavrianeas says. “Our national policies depend on that.”

At a place like Willamette, where many students major in the sciences but many more dip their toes in and then move into politics or economics or Spanish, great gains can be made by reevaluating the way learners experience science in small doses. “One of the great things about being here,” says Stewart, “is that there are opportunities for four or five dedicated students to engage one-on-one with a mentor in intense scientific research. But there are hundreds of others to impact in the introductory classes. They won’t necessarily turn into science majors, but a lot of them will be our leaders down the road. We still owe them an experience.”

That experience is now defined in part by iScience, a muscular curriculum meant to expose introductory classes to the widened intellectual contexts of science policy, civic engagement and ethics models, all while providing students with meaningful research capabilities. The most obvious signs of life for the program so far are a powerful new lab on campus and an interdisciplinary course in neuroscience.

The lab, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (iScience was boosted more recently by an even larger grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation — see sidebar p. 27) introduces students to a new package of research tools. Electronic gear housed in blue boxes beside each computer station integrates several data acquisition systems onthe- fly; these could include an array of sensors to measure heart rate, brain activity, muscle contractions or temperature, for example. Because of the system’s automation and speed, students and professors can manipulate increasingly complex layers of data, either to explore established physiological and psychological phenomena or to pursue new hypotheses according to plans they create on any educated whim.

Groups all over campus benefit. “Maybe a rhetoric and media studies class wants to measure people’s visceral reactions to advertisements or images,” says Stavrianeas. “They can do that here.”

“Fundamentals of Neuroscience,” iScience’s second pillar, asks students to enter the study of the brain by constructing their own questions (What’s the difference between the brain and the mind? How is my frontal lobe like a computer?), questioning their own answers, and exploring interpretations — including, for instance, social/cultural ones. The coursework combines lab techniques with narrative writing, historical inquiry and ethics conversations. If students forget the ins and outs of neurological pathways five years down the road — which, let’s face it, some will — they will still retain many other transferrable lessons.

iScience is thematically related to another project at Willamette called the iHuman Science Initiative (iHSI), which first came about two years ago when a different grant (science students learn to identify patterns — one of them is that their work can be expensive) enabled professors to reevaluate how they were teaching teamwork among groups of students from different academic backgrounds. iHSI has helped highlight opportunities for academic cross-pollination, a discussion that has taken hold at Willamette more generally in recent semesters. (For a student’s perspective on interdisciplinary work, see p. 15.)

Peter Harmer, professor of exercise science, has been involved in iHSI from the beginning. “The big questions,” he says, “are answered at the interface of disciplines.” A physicist knows the full weight of her discovery when a historian helps her contextualize it. A law student reevaluates a high-court decision when an anthropologist provides an alternate lens to see it through. To use a current Willamette example, childhood obesity is best addressed as an economic and urban-planning problem, rather than merely a physiological one. Undergraduates extract more complete meaning from a taste of science, even a little one, when tangible research skills are coupled with beyond-the-walls perspective and close teaching.

Research Beyond the ‘Zero Sum’

David Craig, one of Willamette’s most visible researchers over the last few years, knows the challenges of leading a serious research program at a serious teaching institution. “Sometimes there’s a perceived tension between teaching and research,” he says, “and sometimes there’s a real one.” Liberal arts colleges aren’t always comfortable asserting themselves as major research hubs, partly because they have historically operated with different market promises (We will teach your son/daughter to adapt and contribute as a citizen, etc.) and partly because they haven’t been big enough to acquire the equipment and programmatic support that would be needed.

One commentator, Kate Shaw, of the online science and technology publication Ars Technica, reframed this as the “zero-sum” problem in science education, which holds that as either teaching or research is emphasized, the other must suffer proportionately. Add a dyed-in-thewool researcher to the faculty and the net teaching quotient of the department goes down by some related degree.

The solution to the problem, according to Craig, comes from deconstructing the idea that teaching and research are so different. “When we say research,” he says, “what we’re really talking about is the essential component of the liberal arts: measuring what’s around us and evaluating what’s possible, what’s next, what’s right and what we need to rethink.” Research is teaching, if you do it right. Moreover, liberal arts students are fundamental assets to their institutions when they are able to contribute to serious lab and field work, right alongside their professors, from the get-go.

Surprising hard-research productivity is feasible. “All chemistry majors get research experience with a faculty member,” says Professor Karen McFarlane Holman ’90, who won the 2010 Oregon Professor of the Year Award (see p. 7). “These scientists who emerge are experienced with research that impacts our fields because they take it on as undergraduates. We’ve always enjoyed the teaching, and it’s icing on the cake that these students are contributing to their scientific communities.”

One way Holman facilitates this is by involving students in cancer work. Many researchers know that ruthenium-based treatments combat metastatic cancers (those that spread to other parts of the body), but they haven’t isolated the specific mechanisms that make it happen. Holman studies the fundamental chemistry to figure out what’s going on at a molecular level, and, while she’s at it, she makes the time to take a group her students each year to Berkeley and Stanford to collect data using a particle accelerator that’s only available to a handful of well-connected researchers around the world. Jeff Weber ’10 was one of them; now he’s in a PhD program having received a $250,000 graduate school grant for his role in the cancer project.

“Thinking like a researcher has been a key driver of innovation in this country.”

A convenient side-effect of such successes, as Willamette has been learning for a few years, is that money and capability follow performance. The productivity of the science departments in terms of grant acquisition and structural growth — as measured by, among other things, the addition of a new electron microscope and a half- million-dollar NMR spectrometer, which Holman calls the “MRI for chemists”— has greatly expanded future possibilities.

The national-interest element here is derived from the fact that colleges and universities in the U.S. know they have to generate more scientific producers. “All the evidence says that the process of thinking like a researcher,” Craig says, “regardless of the field, has been a driver of innovation in this country since World War II.” But now, in the absence of some of the 20th-century influences that pushed the country ahead so startlingly (like the Cold War), the lay of the higher-ed landscape has shifted. Right when all sorts of institutions — both within higher education and totally detached from it — are being asked to do more with less, places like Willamette are addressing the challenges of productivity by pushing forward liberal-arts solutions.

“ Students propel us into real-world problems,” Craig says. “That’s the thing about research here: You’re part of a community that perceives contemporary challenges by breaking them into pieces that we can work on, details that contribute to a larger dialog of discovery. These are authentic problems we’re working on.”

Give Me an IPA …and Quantum Mechanics

Every few weeks, Salem residents enjoy Science Pub, a program in which science faculty from Willamette give easy-to-understand lectures on complex topics to anyone over 21 who wants to come to Browns Towne Lounge (on Liberty Street) for a listen. These aren’t talking-head lectures, either: They’re conversations with incredibly smart people that generate lots of questions and answers and lingering musings at the door (or at a table over a second pint).

Science Pub is a collaborative program between Willamette and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). OMSI also coordinates similar events with partners in Portland, Hillsboro, Corvallis and Eugene.

Learn more and buy the special Science Pub pint glass at omsi.edu/sciencepub.

Stasinos Stavrianeas

"For too long we as a society have mystified science — it’s something that is happening ‘ over there’ when it should be accessible to everybody.”

— Stasinos Stavrianeas
Professor of Exercise Science

Mark Stewart

“They won’t necessarily turn into science majors, but a lot of them will be our leaders down the road. We still owe them an experience.”

— Mark Stewart
Professor of Psychology

Karen McFarlane Holman ’90

“We’ve always enjoyed the teaching, and it’s icing on the cake that these students are contributing to their scientific communities.”

— Karen McFarlane Holman ’90
Associate Professor of Chemistry

Peter Harmer

“The big questions are answered at the interface of disciplines.”

— Peter Harmer
Professor of Exercise Science

David Craig

“Sometimes there’s a perceived tension between teaching and research, and sometimes there’s a real one.”

— David Craig
Associate Professor of Biology