HEDCO Foundation Grant Supports Research

Two biology professors and the students who assist them will benefit from new equipment to be used in research and in class

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The practice of engaging Westmont students in research with faculty has enthused, educated and mentored future scientists and medical professionals for years. A $130,000 challenge grant from the Hedco Foundation will help the college purchase equipment to increase these opportunities. The grant will fund a flow cytometer as long as Westmont raises an additional $109,900 in the next two years for an infrared imager. These new instruments, combined with the existing fluorescent microscope, will establish a comprehensive fluorescence detection and imaging work-station for use in class and ongoing research.

Two professors working in cellular and molecular biology will benefit from the grant. Eileen McMahon has discovered a novel strain of mice that develops arthritis spontaneously at about 40 days of age (teenage years in mice), and she is characterizing its clinical and pathological similarities to human rheumatoid arthritis and identifying the gene mutations responsible.

Steve Julio is studying the human respiratory pathogen Bordetella (which causes whooping cough), focusing on the genetic mechanisms the bacteria use to colonize the respiratory tract. His results may help design more effective and better tolerated vaccines.

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The biology department attracts more majors than any other discipline in the sciences. It has a history of committed faculty, and McMahon and Julio have brought robust research programs with significant clinical relevance. Both involve undergraduates in advanced research, exposing them to the latest techniques and protocols in biomedical science. Students have presented their work at local symposia and regional conferences, and many have found the experience pivotal in deciding to attend medical or graduate school.

“At Westmont, research is not just about learning scientific facts,” says Warren Rogers, interim academic dean and professor of physics. “It’s about acquiring scientific knowledge to solve problems, developing curiosity and critical reasoning in applying this knowledge, balancing it with ethical considerations, and honing skills and applying ingenuity to contribute to scientific knowledge. We want students to learn science by hands-on experience while becoming thoughtful scientists who value the implications of their research as much as the pursuit of the science itself. They should be able to articulate their conclusions with confidence and understand divergent opinions.”

Roughly 25 percent of Westmont students declare a major in the sciences, and about 25 percent of those who graduate earn doctorates. Many others become doctors, dentists, veterinarians and psychologists or work or teach in the sciences. More than 90 percent of students who apply to medical school are accepted, and alumni receive advanced degrees from premier graduate programs such as Harvard, CalTech, Stanford, Princeton, MIT and USC.

Westmont graduates earned 112 research doctorates in a 10-year period, placing 104th in the Carnegie classification of national liberal arts colleges (Study of Baccalaureate Origins of Research Doctoral Recipients in the United States 1995-2004). The college outranks all but three California institutions: Harvey Mudd, Pomona and Occidental. The rankings are based on absolute numbers rather than the proportion of graduates, or Westmont would finish even higher.

“Undergraduates at research universities rarely get the kind of opportunities available at Westmont,” Rogers says.

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