Published: Fall 1996 in Feature Story

Learning in the Laboratory

What careers and opportunities await Westmont graduates with degrees in biology, chemistry, and engineering physics? Just about anything they can imagine. With two graduates currently enrolled at Harvard, three at UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania, and one each attending Stanford, Cornell, and Princeton, these departments are successfully placing students in prestigious graduate schools (see the chart on page 23). At the same time, 85 percent of Westmont graduates who apply to medical school get in. Other alums land significant positions with research companies, and some even start their own thriving firms.

“I always wonder how it is that Westmont takes average students and sends them to places like UCLA, Stanford, Princeton, and Harvard,” muses Paul Ashby ’96, who is working on a Ph.D. in chemistry at Harvard. “One major reason is the quality of teaching and the emphasis on learning,” he answers. “Classes are small, so students can ask questions, and teachers challenge them with difficult questions to keep their interest and help them think more deeply. The emphasis on fundamentals is also essential.”

Rebecca Slayton ’96, another doctoral student at Harvard, agrees. “Ostensibly, one might say it was four years of excellent teaching and my research experience with Dr.Tro that ‘got me into’ Harvard,” she notes. “But what has prepared me to live in this place is their words of wisdom and years of encouragement, their commitment to grow students who not only know chemistry, but also know the love of our God. Their ability to exemplify that love to me in the midst of a challenging academic environment inspires me still.”

Skilled at teaching and committed to their students and their faith, Westmont professors in biology, chemistry, and engineering physics also conduct research and regularly publish their findings. A number of them have received prestigious grants from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. By involving students in their research, faculty prepare them for graduate school or industry while teaching them how to be scientists.

A Biological Boom

Although biology programs nationwide show some growth, Westmont’s is expanding exponentially—the number of majors has nearly tripled since 1980. Developments in medicine and bio-technology have certainly increased interest in the field. “But students also find biology fascinating,” Professor George Ayoub adds. “We’re in the midst of a biotechnological evolution,’ and it’s opening new worlds like genetic engineering.”

Excited about their own work as biologists, the faculty clearly communicate their enthusiasm to students. George has received a four-year, R01 grant from the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health to explore how individual cells in the retina transmit and process information. Understanding this communication may someday contribute to a cure for diseases (like glaucoma) in which communication between cells goes awry.

Professor Beth Horvath hopes to discover why hermit crabs consistently choose certain shells, and she also checks the quality of coastal water to determine the environmental effect of treatment procedures. Since plants need nitrogen nutrients as well as water, Professor Frank Percival is studying the effect of nitrogen deficiency on a plant widely used in genetic research so he can take a genetic approach. Overseeing the implementation of a Pew Global Stewardship Initiative grant, Professor Jeff Schloss is developing interdisciplinary programs that reflect a commitment to care for the earth and its inhabitants. Professor Connie Wolfe is looking at the interdependent relationship between fish and the bacteria they host to see if these organisms have evolved together.

While biology majors aren’t required to conduct research, students become involved in the lab in three ways. First, they do experiments and projects for class assignments. Some majors also get credit for research that assists a professor or supports an independent project. And a few students work full time during the summer with faculty, gaining the immersion necessary to master highly technical skills and equipment.

Research even benefits students who decide not to go to graduate or medical school. “We advise prospective high school teachers to do research so they will learn the craft and pass it on to their students,” Frank explains. Other graduates go into industries like pharmaceutical companies where knowledge about research methods is helpful.

As they search for answers in the laboratory, biology faculty also consider ways to integrate their Christian faith and their discipline. “The life sciences lend themselves to discussions about the relationship between science and religion,” says Beth.

“To a great extent, our learning extends from our faith,” concurs George. “We’re excited about the world God has created, and we want to learn more about it.”

“A common misconception in the culture is that science is based solely on evidence and religion depends only on faith,” notes Frank. “We attempt to shatter that perception and show students that science and religion aren’t mutually exclusive. Sometimes conflicts arise when scientists attempt to answer questions their research is not capable of addressing.”

“We want students to be comfortable about studying biology and not see it as threatening their faith,” adds Connie. “Some come to class fearful of what they might learn.”

“They need to overcome their reticence to explore these issues, and we help them do that,” Beth explains.

Professors raise faith-related issues regularly in class and encourage discussion. They also meet individually with students to talk about controversies like evolution. As students learn how interpretations of scientific evidence and biblical passages vary, they can argue effectively against positions that reach unsupportable conclusions, whether drawn from scientific findings or biblical texts taken out of context.

Great Chemistry

To earn a B.S. in chemistry at Westmont, students must conduct research. “Doing research with professors develops an ethos in the department,” states Professor Niva Tro. “Students are drawn to scholarly work, and many pursue it after they leave. Spending time in the lab one-on-one with faculty is very conducive to learning. Students begin to think of themselves as chemists and scientists.”

“Research does benefit the faculty,” adds Professor Allan Nishimura. “But it also helps students, especially those who want to go to graduate school. We have an impressive number of majors in top-notch programs nationwide. In fact, we are one of the few Christian colleges placing students in highly rated Ph.D. programs.”

Not only do students gain experience in the lab, learning research methods and using complicated equipment, but they also present their findings at undergraduate research conferences and publish articles as co-authors with their professors. These activities make them attractive applicants for both graduate schools and private industry.

“Our students excel at these conferences,” says Niva. “The liberal arts curriculum teaches them communication skills, so they present their findings clearly and coherently.”

Through collaboration with professors at research universities and involvement in undergraduate conferences, Westmont faculty can gauge the relative quality of their program. According to Allan, Westmont competes even with UC campuses. “Actually, we offer students more,” he contends. “We work one-on-one with majors, our liberal arts curriculum provides a broad and balanced education, and we are free to talk about faith-related issues in class.”

“Large universities put their emphasis on graduate students, not undergraduates,” Professor Stan Anderson notes. “That’s another advantage: our students can do significant research as undergraduates.”

Like their colleagues in other departments, chemistry professors find ways to integrate their faith and their discipline. “A lot of this discussion takes place with individual students as we’re working in the lab and waiting for results,” Niva explains. “We talk about world views and the relationship of science, which describes the natural world, to religion, which deals with spiritual matters. We pose questions like, ‘Does a naturalistic explanation of the world rule out religion?’

“We also point out that participation in an academic discipline is part of a Christian’s spiritual life and discipline,” Niva continues. “If God calls someone to be a chemist, that is a ministry just like anything else.”

All four chemistry professors are pursuing research projects, some with practical applications. However, they are quick to point out that research doesn’t need to be applied to be valuable. “Chemistry fits into the liberal arts curriculum well because it asks basic questions like,“How does nature work?’” observes Niva. “We need a fundamental knowledge of natural processes simply to understand the world in which we live.”

One of Stan’s projects is helping to develop a worldwide network to monitor stratospheric ozone with simple, inexpensive instruments. He is also collaborating with a chemist at UCSB to synthesize organometallic molecules as starting materials for metallic clusters. The new area of metal-organic chemistry and organometallic compounds occupies Professor Dave Marten, who is examining the specific chemistry of compounds that contain iron. Possible applications include the production of pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals. Allan seeks to understand the transfer of energy from molecule to molecule by studying thin layers of molecules. Light-induced, chemical reactions at the surface are central to many processes, including ozone depletion, printed circuit boards, and solar energy conversions, and Niva has a grant to study how different solid surfaces affect the paths of these reactions.

Physics Fundamentals

As a liberal arts college, Westmont doesn’t offer the specialized education available at technical schools. Students interested in this training can attend Westmont for three years and an engineering program for two more to earn dual degrees: a B.A. from Westmont and a B.S. from a number of institutions, including the University of California, Cal Poly, and the University of Southern California.

While the current four-year B.A. and B.S. programs emphasize engineering, a growing number of students want to major in physics. To encourage this trend, the department has proposed a third option: a B.S. in physics that would require additional courses and participation in advanced research.

Currently, engineering physics majors have a number of opportunities to participate in research with faculty. Professor Ken Kihlstrom is working on thin film superconductivity with a company in Santa Barbara, measuring superconducting properties as a function of temperature. He has placed students there as interns, and they have profited from the experience. Professor Warren Rogers has won a National Science Foundation grant to study nuclear magnetic moment measurements using on-line B-NMR spectroscopy, a project that also involves students in research. Professor Michael Sommermann has several research interests, including the skyrmion model of nuclear structure and reactions, the distribution of energy levels in the quantum-mechanical description of many-body systems, and theoretical studies in astrophysics.

“The practical experience of research gives students an opportunity to explore areas no one else has ever examined,” explains Ken. “Getting over this hurdle gives our students a tremendous advantage once they get to graduate school. They can step right in and be productive in the lab immediately. Because graduate schools focus so much on research, they look for students who can work well with a research group, and actual experience is very helpful.”

“Research is entirely different from class work,” notes Michael. “It is not at all predictable, and sometimes students don’t even know where to start. Either they get excited and plunge right into it, or they become uncomfortable. They soon discover if research is something they want to pursue, and the experience helps them decide whether to enroll in graduate school or go into industry.”

While they lack the narrow specialization taught in engineering programs, Westmont graduates have much to offer: a solid grasp of the fundamentals and a broad, general background that makes them flexible and well-rounded. Some companies even prefer the kind of education Westmont provides as they can offer technical training themselves or pay for employees to earn master’s degrees.

The professors in the physics department find it natural to integrate their faith and their discipline. “The scientific method developed in the context of a Christian world view,” Ken points out. “The presupposition of an orderly universe with discernible natural laws was necessary for science to flourish. In our research, we observe the handiwork of God and learn about him by studying his creation.”

Michael has received a grant from the Templeton Foundation to develop an interdisciplinary course examining the relationship between science and religion. “Exploration of the Universe: Connections of Science and Religion in Astronomy,” makes its debut in 1997. Designed for students who wonder whether their faith is compatible with the findings of modern science, the class features lectures by Michael and responses by faculty colleagues in numerous disciplines. “My Christian belief in one ultimate truth demands a consonance between the essential foundations of my faith and the interpretation of our discoveries in the book of nature,” he explains.

—Nancy Favor Phinney ’74

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