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Beckman Scholars Award Expands Summer Research Focus

By Savannah Tranchell

Students will benefit from an expanded vision for summer research in the chemistry and life sciences departments at Whitman College, thanks to a Beckman Scholars Award from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.

The college was notified in December 2018 that it received the award, one of about 10 given each year. The Beckman Scholars Award, worth $104,000 over three years, is an invitation-only program that supports undergraduate research in chemistry, biochemistry and medicine. The award will support four students over three years in mentored research projects.

This is the first time the college has received the prestigious Beckman Scholars Award. The award recognizes colleges that have a high proportion of faculty members in chemistry and life sciences who are participating in nationally funded research.

"It's a very selective process at every stage," said Arielle Cooley, an associate professor of biology and Garrett Fellow. "And Whitman has a fairly rapidly increasing trajectory of undergraduate research, in terms of the amount we do and research findings we're putting out, for an institution of our size."

Cooley is one of 10 faculty members from the departments of chemistry, biology, and biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology (BBMB) who will serve as mentors on the grant. Students from those departments, as well as Whitman's pre-health track, are eligible to apply for the funds.

Tim Machonkin, associate professor of chemistry, said the college has been invited to apply for the award previously but was unsuccessful. Machonkin attributed the college's success this time to both an increase in the number of science faculty and the amount of nationally funded research being conducted in the departments.

"Within a three-year span of time, the science division increased the number of extramural grants by a lot," he said. Science faculty currently have 21 active research grants from organizations such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the Murdock College Research Program for Natural Sciences.

The Beckman Scholars Award will fund three cohorts of students beginning in summer 2019. To apply, students choose a research project to participate in from the list of Beckman faculty mentors. Research areas include plant evolution, environmental chemistry, exercise physiology and synthetic biology, among others.

Beckman Scholars will work full time for two summers with their mentor, as well as 10 hours a week during the academic year. The Beckman Scholars Award provides each student with $21,000 in funding over the course of the program.

"It's the highest-paid undergraduate research experience I've seen in my life," said Brit Moss, an assistant professor of biology and BBMB. Moss' research involves studying hormone signaling in corn.

The Beckman program builds on existing strengths in the sciences at Whitman and will create a more collaborative experience for students who participate in research.

"The science building is humming over the summer with a lot of students working individually, but they don't necessarily interact with each other," said Cooley, whose research looks at evolution in monkeyflowers.

As part of the grant, the selected Beckman Scholars will create opportunities for all student researchers to receive more professional development and chances to collaborate with each other. Activities may include organizing weekly gatherings, assisting with outreach or organizing a summer research seminar.

"We've had conversations as a faculty about how we should do more for our students," said Assistant Professor Nate Boland in the Department of Chemistry. "We have this critical mass of students present in the building over the summer. We could talk about ethics more universally. We could talk about how to think about life after Whitman in pursuing research as a career or related topics there."

The programming created by the Beckman Scholars over the next three years will serve as a foundation for how the departments work with summer research students into the future.

"We hope that even after the funding for the Beckman program is completed, that we'll have these programs in place that will continue into perpetuity," Moss said.

The length of the Beckman Scholar Award is also a huge benefit for students. Most students work on a research project for perhaps 10 weeks in the summer. By working on a project for 15 months, students are able to work on more complex topics, and they are more likely to contribute to a published journal article.

"I see it as an opportunity to sometimes take a project that I would maybe think, ‘This would be pretty hard for a student to do for one summer.' But now, knowing I'll have a student who will be here for a summer, an academic year and another summer, I might be able to have that student work with me on a much more complex and involved project," Moss said. "We can dive into the scientific project in ways that are harder to do in a shorter research experience."

The application deadline to become a Beckman Scholar is Feb. 1. Sophomores are especially encouraged to apply. The successful students will be announced in March. The selection committee is made up of the Beckman faculty mentors. More information about applying for the grant and the list of faculty mentors is available on the Fellowships and Grants website.

Published on Jan 22, 2019
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