From left: Rising senior Drew Conkin's at-home workspace. Computational modeling of optimal geometry and binding energies of different metalloenzyme's substrates. The Machonkin Lab plays "The Price is Right" at a RSCU meeting to learn about lab equipment costs, research grants and funding. (Photos from the Summer Science at Home newsletter)

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The Whitman College campus may be largely closed, but dozens of students are still spending their summer engaged in meaningful research, though it may not look like they expected.

Keeping that group connected and working to build a community among student researchers are the college’s three Beckman Scholars — new graduate Alexandra Moore ’20 and rising seniors Silas Miller and Hunter Hansen.

Whitman received a Beckman Scholars Award from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation in December 2018. The three-year, $104,000 award, funds student researchers in chemistry, biochemistry and medicine. The funding allows the students to work with a faculty mentor on a research project for 15 months. Moore and Miller were the first two recipients, selected last summer. Hansen was selected this spring.

In addition to conducting extensive research, the Beckman Scholars are charged with being leaders among the other students working on science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) research at Whitman. 

Last summer, Moore and Miller hosted weekly, in-person Science Cafes, where student researchers got together to share their work and learn from each other. This summer, the scholars were forced to get more creative as COVID-19 restrictions pushed most research to remote formats. 

“Last summer, we were able to have everyone together in a room to do events every week. That was a good way to foster scientific community. This summer, obviously that’s not an option,” said Miller, who is majoring in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology. 

Instead, the group decided to produce a weekly newsletter, “Summer Science at Home,” that highlights how student-faculty teams are continuing their research. For each newsletter, they collect photos and stories from other student researchers about their projects.

“We can’t replicate a perfect in-person community, but knowing that there are other people, other students trying to make the research thing work over the summer can be motivating and inspiring,” Miller said. “It’s a reminder that we’re not sacrificing research experiences completely. Even if you can’t see the research in person, you can still check your inbox and see what’s happening.” 

In addition, the scholars are hosting professional development opportunities via Zoom, with guest speakers sharing insights on graduate school and careers in research. In mid-July, the Beckman Scholars invited students to give short talks about their summer projects.

And virtual has its perks when it comes to participation, Hansen said.

“There’s a lot of people who wouldn’t have been able to attend in-person events in the summer that are able to attend,” she said, noting that about 50 people attended a recent talk. “Normally, we wouldn’t have filled a classroom in a summer. It’s been really exciting to see people who might have internships elsewhere being able to participate and ask questions, and get the full advantage of being a part of the Whitman community.”

Shifting Plans and Forging Ahead

In addition to finding new ways to form community, the research itself also looks different. When she applied for the Beckman program, Hansen planned to continue her work with Associate Professor Marion Götz in the Department of Chemistry. They have been working together for over a year already, and last summer Hansen helped design and synthesize a molecule that has potential to treat multiple myeloma, a rare and very aggressive cancer.

It’s not possible to conduct synthetic organic chemistry with social distancing, Götz said, so instead Hansen is refining data and preparing a manuscript about the research for publication. She’s able to conduct the work from her home in Post Falls, Idaho. While she misses being in the lab, Hansen is excited to be a co-author on an article, which will help her in applying to graduate schools after she earns her chemistry degree from Whitman.

“Having a publication in hand when you’re applying to graduate school is really helpful in getting into those top five programs,” Götz said. “Hunter has that potential. She’s going to go to a high-ranking graduate school.” 

Miller is also modifying his research efforts. He is working with Assistant Professor Brit Moss in BBMB research on the plant hormone auxin. Miller is still in Walla Walla, and is able to be in the lab about half of the time since the Hall of Science was reopened in a limited capacity in July. In August, he’ll be presenting his work at the annual Beckman Symposium.

Miller was one of three Beckman Scholars from around the nation selected to give a talk for the symposium, which is being held virtually.

“I nominated Silas because he made rapid progress on his research and has a genuine talent for contextualizing and clearly communicating his research findings,” Moss said. “As part of the nomination process, he had to record a short video describing his research. His video truly captured his creativity, his ability to communicate complex information in engaging ways, and his excitement about building new molecular tools to explore natural phenomena in plants.”

Miller also hopes to attend graduate school after Whitman, and plans to pursue a doctorate and ultimately return to academia as a professor.

Moore, who earned her degree in biology and German Studies in May, is still committed to her Beckman Scholar research. She’s finishing up her research program with Assistant Professor Michael Coronado, studying the effects of cardiac physiology.

Members of the Whitman community who are interested in receiving the Summer Science at Home newsletter can reach out to Moss at mossbl@whitman.edu.