Life sciences

 
Ginger Withers
Christopher Wallace

Dr. Robert F. Welty Associate Professors of Biology

The transition into the 2000s was an exciting time in the life sciences. We were only a year away from learning the sequence of the human genome, and there was a mad rush on to sequence as many genomes of other organisms as possible. At the same time, we were coming off of a decade of stunning achievements in microscopy, particularly in our ability to image the molecular machinery of living cells. It had only been 10 years before that the green fluorescent protein (GFP) made by jelly fish had been sequenced, and shortly thereafter, biologists and chemists had figured out how to take advantage of the universal code of DNA to “trick” the cells of other kinds of organisms not only into making GFP, but also into having the GFP tag along with specific proteins in their cells, so that we could see what they were doing in the cell as well. What followed was a burst of new scientific discoveries revealing the intricate workings of cells. Combining the complete parts list provided by the human genome project, with the ability to tag these gene products in living color, the last decade has given us a new set of questions to ask about life, and new tools with which to ask them.

Withers and Wallace In their spare time, Ginger Withers and Chris Wallace can be found having fun with their 11-year-old son, Paul (“who couldn’t make the photo shoot because he was in school”), and their dog Ted (“who is always available for pictures”).

In fact, we are now generating the DNA parts list for so many organisms that we are awash in DNA sequences with, as yet, no known function. The life sciences now need a new generation of scientists with technical creativity and imagination to mine this data and discover the function of these genes. The last decade has made us realize that what we now need is a revolution in science education that can better prepare the next generation of scientists for challenging new exploration. Science education must include opportunities to practice science as it is really done in the field, and it must offer opportunities to practice working with the current tools of the trade.

Our life science programs address those challenges in key ways, both in terms of providing independent research experiences in our labs, and in terms of the state-of-art equipment that Whitman science faculty have adeptly gathered using every mechanism available to us. Throughout the Hall of Science, you can find high-impact equipment that we are using to transform the educational experience and stimulate the imagination of our students. Equipment purchased through extramural funding and generous donations from alumni (e.g., from the 12 student digital microscopy workstations that are used to introduce our students to live imaging in their first biology courses, to the new NSF-funded scanning electron microscope; both are resources that foster creative exploration of our microscopic world). We have scavenged from colleagues at other institutions, and bought from eBay or government surplus sites. Each piece, regardless of how obtained, fills an important need in our research and teaching labs, and enables us to design novel, challenging experiences for our students.

“What we now need is a revolution in science education that can better prepare the next generation of scientists for challenging new exploration.”
– Ginger Withers and Christopher Wallace

Our dream academic world in 2020 would build on the successes of our science faculty as teacher-scholars over the last 10 years. We will continue to develop teaching strategies that co-evolve with the current breakthroughs in our fields. This in turn will expand opportunities for collaborative research between the faculty and with our students. In our own experiences, support from Whitman has enabled us to develop new approaches in the teaching lab, to fill our research lab with eager Whitman students, and to travel to brainstorm with colleagues at other small schools (see the “Teach Big Science Project”). The challenge for Whitman in the coming decade is to continue to invest in the resources that our faculty need to continue to develop transformative science education.

The Dr. Robert F. Welty Professorship of Biology was established in 2002 by the Board of Trustees in honor of the late Dr. Welty ’35, with the assistance of his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Main Welty, longtime trustee and friend of the college.