Sophomore Christopher Staral (Woodbury, Minn.) is spending the summer at the University of Minnesota researching genes that influence the development of the human heart, thanks in part to support he received from the Robert J. Kolenkow and Robert A. Reitz Endowed Fund for Student Scientific Research.
Staral is one of four students who received a grant from the fund in 2008. He says of his research: “If scientists can identify the specific mechanisms that contribute to the formation of congenital heart defects, these medical issues have the potential to be fixed even before they develop in a newborn. To have the opportunity to help contribute to this discovery is both an honor and a humbling experience.”
David Ignat ’63, who established the Kolenkow-Reitz Fund in 2007, wanted to expand and enrich research opportunities for Carleton students interested in science. “As a student, I had the good fortune to work on real research projects in the summer with Carleton professors and other students,” says Ignat, who majored in physics at Carleton. He went on to earn a PhD in physics from Yale University, followed by a successful career in the field of plasma physics.
The Kolenkow-Reitz Fund supports students in pursuing either on-campus or off-campus research projects during summer or winter breaks. “One goal of the fund is to expand research opportunities in areas that are not always well represented at an undergraduate college,” Ignat says. “The program might also widen exposure to the engineering side of the physical sciences: from physics to electrical or mechanical engineering, for example, or to biomedical diagnostics.”
Recognizing the important role teachers play in students’ academic lives and potential careers, Ignat chose to name the fund after Robert Kolenkow and Robert Reitz, two Carleton physics professors who profoundly influenced his success as a physicist.
“It was a wonderful surprise to hear about this,” says Reitz, who retired in 1990 after teaching at Carleton for 36 years. “My colleagues and I always felt we needed to work closely with students to help them think about and prepare for careers in physics and science. We wanted them to go on to prominent institutions for graduate education and research.”
Kolenkow taught in Carleton’s physics department from 1959 to 1964. “I went to work at Carleton because I really wanted to focus on teaching and students. To be honored like this is an enormous surprise,” he says. “It’s a powerful message about how we don’t always know what impact our teaching will have on our students’ lives.”
The current Carleton science faculty appreciates the impact that this support will have on students interested in scientific inquiry. “Although Carleton offers many opportunities for student research, the experience of doing research at a different institution is invaluable,” says Fernán Jaramillo, biology professor and director of Carleton’s Interdisciplinary Science and Math Initiative. “Students gain insight into how distinct cultures of research are developed. They also make contacts that can guide them in their professional careers.”
Staral is discovering that working in a research laboratory offers important contrasts to his experiences in classroom labs. “It’s a different feeling working on the same project for days, weeks, or even months at a time,” he says. “Being able to explore this type of work helps students determine if it’s a good match. I’ve also found out that much of what I’m learning at Carleton can be directly applied to my work as a medical research assistant.”
The first grant recipients of the Kolenkow-Reitz Fund were named in spring 2007. They participated in research projects at Columbia University and the universities of Arizona, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Utah. The 2008 recipients are involved with projects at St. Olaf College and the universities of Georgia, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.
Read about Kelson Zawack '08, one of the first students to benefit from the Kolenkow-Reitz Fund.