Swarthmore lauded for leadership in undergraduate faculty research

The Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement’s recognition of Swat as a leader in undergraduate science research is a testament to the capacity of small liberal arts schools to facilitate strong student-faculty relationships. (Justin Toran-Burrell/The Phoenix)

The Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement (RSCA) has recently recognized Swarthmore College for its outstanding leadership in advancing scientific education among undergraduates.
The college was ranked ninth in a list of liberal arts institutions awarded grants by the foundation during its 100 years of activity. Swarthmore has received 49 grants from RCSA to date.

One of the many scientific laboratories in Swarthmore’s Science Center. (Justin Toran-Burrell/The Phoenix)

Described by its current President James M. Gentile as America’s oldest foundation devoted wholly to science, the RCSA works to “improve US science education by advocating that undergraduate students participate in their mentors’ cutting edge research.”

This mission is accomplished through RCSA’s initiative to “fund top early career teacher-scholars at America’s leading colleges and universities.”

Seven of Swarthmore’s current faculty members have previously been beneficiaries of the RCSA’s Cottrell College Science awards since 1995. These include Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Allison Holliday, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Lilya Yatsunyk, Provost and James H. Hammons Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Tom Stephenson, Edward Hicks Magill Professor of Mathematics and Natural Sciences Frank Moscatelli, Associate Professor of Astronomy David Cohen, Professor of Physics Michael Brown and Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Paul Rablen.

Professor Brown elaborated on the ways in which grant money from the RCSA is used to aid student involvement in research.

“Research in the sciences is usually faculty-led but involving students intimately. The grants are almost always written by professors but the money is used for student stipends, equipment, travel, etc.,” Brown said.

Professor Stephenson stated that funding through RCSA grants has greatly aided his research in the past.

A two-year grant from the organization enabled him to buy vital equipment such as a laser system for use in his research on atmospheric chemistry.

This project dealt with radiative cooling of the upper atmosphere, studying the energy transfer of diatomic molecular collisions. Four undergraduate students were involved in this project.

Stephenson further described the RCSA as providing an important “niche for early career scientists.”

Stephenson noted that the process of applying for these grants also provides faculty with the opportunity to refine the aims and directions of specific projects through dialogue with the RCSA’s staff.

“Faculty can test ideas with these grants and get feedback on ideas through comments on the grant’s application,” Stephenson said.

Brown also described the difference in the research environment between typical research universities and Swarthmore.

“Science faculty at RI [Research I] universities really have a different job than we do,” Brown said. By RI universities, he is referring to those universities that give priority to extensive research projects — and receive large amounts of federal research money — such as Stanford, Johns Hopkins and UCLA.

“Promotion and tenure is based almost 100% on research, raising funds, publishing papers, establishing a group,” Brown said.

At a liberal arts college such as Swarthmore, though, Brown said that “promotion and success is based on teaching and research.”

“Since we’re teachers, a lot of the work we do under the auspices of research involves instruction, training and teaching. Swarthmore (along with a few other places like Amherst and Williams) really values research and teaching. Lots of other liberal arts colleges have a much lower emphasis on scholarship and research,” he said.

Mr. Gentile, a geneticist and former dean for the natural sciences at Hope College in Hope, MI, has previously voiced his support for the unique opportunities afforded by scientific education and research in the setting of a liberal arts college.

“Hands-on research opportunities for undergraduates combined with personalized attention from inventive professors is one of the reasons that liberal arts colleges have long played a disproportionately large role in the education of our nation’s future scientists,” Gentile said.

In his book “Science in Solution: the Impact of Undergraduate Research on Student Learning,” David Lopatto, professor of psychology at Grinnell College, expressed comparable views on the values of undergraduate research in general.

This study evaluated the effectiveness of undergraduate participation with professors in cutting edge research, a role normally reserved for graduate or post-doctoral students.

Lopatto credits undergraduate research with presenting “multiple benefits to the student — both personal and professional,” concluding that it “enhances self-confidence, independence, readiness for the next level of challenge and ability to tolerate obstacles.”

Lopatto further states that it “teaches what it’s like to be a scientist and what life as a scientist would be like.” In addition, Lopatto believes that such opportunities prove concrete experience that will “advance career opportunities and specific skills such as critical-thinking, communications and making presentations.”

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