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Whitman Students Head West for Summer Research Programs

Opportunities at Friday Harbor Laboratories and Fred Hutch Cancer Center give future scientists priceless real-world experience

By Andrew Faught

Francisco Elia-Benfield ’25 and his research partner dissecting urchins.
Rising Whitman senior Francisco Elia-Benfield (pictured, right) dissects an urchin in the lab during his marine biology research experience at Friday Harbor Laboratories.

This summer, four Whitman students will travel to Washington’s Westside to participate in two respected summer research programs: one focused on marine biology and one on cancer research.

Francisco Elia-Benfield ’25 and Emily de la Cruz Hofer ’26 will explore ocean life at Friday Harbor Laboratories in the San Juan Islands, while Kenzie Bay ’25 and Ella Schneider ’25 will join cancer researchers at Fred Hutch Cancer Center in Seattle.

Bio Majors Get Their Feet Wet in the Marine World

Growing up in San Francisco, Francisco Elia-Benfield developed an early love of the ocean—for both its beauty and its mystery.

“It’s one of the last great unexplored frontiers left to humans, and I have wanted to be a part of that exploration since I was little,” he says.

The Biology and French and Francophone Studies double major hopes to work on deep sea ecology and coral reefs—a dream that has been nurtured at Whitman. “The liberal arts teaches me to be a problem solver of all types, while providing encouragement to pursue what I am truly interested in,” Elia-Benfield says. “Coming to Whitman reinforced my love and curiosity of the ocean.”

This summer, he gets to take a deep dive into all things aquatic as one of two recipients of Whitman’s Helen Hawkes Thompson Student Research Grant in Marine Biology. Grant recipients spend the summer in the San Juan Islands at Friday Harbor Laboratories, operated by the University of Washington, where they will investigate the physiology and ecology of marine organisms.

Joining him at Friday Harbor will be Emily de la Cruz Hofer, a Biology-Environmental Studies major from Glassboro, New Jersey. The Friday Harbor experience will be her first opportunity to do research.

 Emily De La Cruz Hofer posing in front of a harbor.

Rising Whitman junior Emily De La Cruz Hofer will spend her summer in the San Juan Islands getting her first field research experience.

“I would like to gain some insight as to whether a career in marine biology would be for me,” she says. “I hope to gain skills that would be valuable for contributing research to the scientific community.”

De la Cruz Hofer was drawn to Whitman’s strong sense of community, “especially a good community of people who love the outdoors.” As a sophomore, she’s keeping her career options open, but she’s hopeful that her time in the San Juan Islands will lead to other internships and research opportunities.

“At Whitman, research has been a foundation of the Biology program,” says Heidi Dobson the Spencer F. Baird Professor of Biology. “When I got here in 1992, we were one of the only liberal arts colleges that required all of our Biology majors to write a senior research thesis.”

She calls research projects like these transformational. “Students become much more confident,” says Dobson, who helps organize the Friday Harbor Laboratories experience. “They understand how science is done, and they become much more critical in their thinking.”

Future Researchers Put Cancer Under the Microscope

In more terrestrial pursuits, Interdisciplinary major Kenzie Bay ’25 says her stint at the Summer Undergraduate Research Program at Fred Hutch Cancer Center will allow her to pursue a research project of her choosing, while being overseen by a mentor. Students do cancer research, as well as investigate infectious diseases and vaccine development. They also receive feedback from a peer review group.

“With aspirations of going to medical school, I know that the Fred Hutch program is going to play a significant role in helping me grow professionally and further my experiences,” says Bay, who hails from Littleton, Colorado. “I’m really looking forward to continuing to grow my knowledge and skills within the field of research and cancer.”

Bay enrolled at Whitman because of the college’s “holistic” approach to education: “I wanted to ensure that I would have the ability to explore classes within various departments and gain a well-rounded perspective.”

Image of Kenzie Bay ’25 and Ella Schneider ’25 standing infront of the Arnold Building—Fred Hutch Cancer Center sing.

Ella Schneider ’25 (left) and Kenzie Bay ’25 (right) are getting valuable research experience at Fred Hutch Cancer Center in Seattle this summer.

Joining Bay will be Ella Schneider ’25, a Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology major from Solana Beach, California. She learned of the Fred Hutch opportunity from her women’s soccer teammates, two of whom previously completed the experience.

“I always heard such great things about my teammates’ experiences while they were there, and I thought it would be a great place for me to grow as a scientist,” Schneider says. “I’m excited to meet other students in the program and employees at Fred Hutch to learn about career options and paths I may not have considered.”

Schneider is leaning toward a career in biomedical research, and she’s looking forward to learning about cancer biology, particularly metastasis, the process by which cancer cells spread throughout the body. At Whitman, she has also done research on the early signs of fatty liver disease.

“The opportunities that these research experiences have and will provide me with will be so important to me as I move through my career,” she says. “I will always appreciate the knowledge that I have learned, and the connections I have made.”

Research is a hallmark of the Whitman experience. “It really gives them a chance to say, ‘Do I see myself working in this way, with these kind of people, with certain goals and mindsets?’” says James Russo, Associate Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology. “They also find out that there are different ways to do science.”

Russo has directed Whitman’s partnership with Fred Hutch since 2008—soliciting applications and selecting two Whitman students for placement in the program. It is made possible by donations from Whitman funds, including the Drs. Robert F. and Elizabeth M. Welty Student/Faculty Research Endowment, and grant funding from such organizations as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Learn more about Whitman’s undergraduate research opportunities.

Published on Jun 20, 2024
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