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Carrying on the research tradition at MD Anderson Cancer Center

February 17, 2017 at 12:53 pm
By Laura Theobald Benda

Among the many reasons Carleton enjoys a strong reputation in the sciences is its penchant for project-based learning. Research is built into the undergraduate experience here—something students at other colleges might not experience until graduate school.

“The teachers here do a lot of research and put you in an experimental mindset,” says Malavika Suresh ’18 (Maple Grove, Minn.), a chemistry major. “You can take as many lecture classes as you want, but actually doing research teaches you in such a different way.”

This approach to science isn’t new; associate dean Gretchen Hofmeister says Carleton shifted to more hands-on teaching decades ago, which is one of the reasons the college considers itself on the forefront of science education. By now generations of Carls have benefited from this emphasis on research, including both Suresh and Stephanie Watowich ’83, P ’15.

“When I was a senior, I conducted an independent study with a Carleton professor, in which I researched and wrote a paper on an emerging area in the molecular biology field—RNA splicing—which just goes to show how old I am!” Watowich says.

Currently a professor of immunology and co-director of the Center for Inflammation and Cancer at MD Anderson Cancer Center (University of Texas, Houston location), Watowich is quick to point out that her entire liberal arts education—in addition to her research experiences—has helped her succeed.

“My classes on the Greek language, art, and art history honed my writing, critical thinking, and oral presentation skills,” she says, “which are critical for my career as a scientist.”

After graduating from Carleton, Watowich’s adviser, biology professor John Tymoczko, helped her make a connection that led to her first research job. Now well into her career, she has made a point to help fellow Carls gain research experience, too—including Suresh.

“I was working in a real lab, seeing what it would be like to work in a science field,” Suresh says. “It taught me so much—now research really feels natural. Longer-term, I think it opened up a different pool for me. I had been worried a research position might be too isolated, but there was a lot of collaboration.”

Suresh had shadowed a neuroscientist during her sophomore year and knew she wanted to try working in cancer research. She’d heard about Watowich’s program and really liked her research—and she was thrilled when she learned Watowich would be visiting the Carleton Career Center for a 30 Minutes career counseling session. She signed up immediately, met Watowich, and was ultimately selected to spend her summer at the MD Anderson Cancer Center researching macrophages in the body’s immune system.

“Specifically, they’re looking at macrophages and trying to figure out why they react the way they do to cancer,” says Suresh. “They want to figure out how to make the immune system more efficient.”

“We were so lucky to have Malavika in the lab,” Watowich adds. “She is the fifth Carleton student who’s done summer research with me at MD Anderson, and I’ve also had two alumni work with me following graduation. They’ve all been fabulous.”

As the college makes plans to break ground on a new science complex that will link with Olin and Hulings Halls, research will be even more at the forefront of Carleton’s science education. Research will be on display to first-year students, visitors, and students from other disciplines—and collaboration will be key. The goal of the building, Hofmeister says, is to make science more inviting and to better support Carleton’s research-focused teaching style.

“Research helps students improve critical thinking, project planning, time management, and communication skills,” Watowich says. “Participation in ongoing research projects helps them understand the scientific process, including how to formulate a hypothesis based on observations and data. And it gives students insight into the daily lives of scientists, helping them develop their career interests and objectives.”

“Research makes classes relevant,” says Suresh. “You’re not memorizing an obscure concept—you’re learning what’s important in real-world terms, and you know why you’re learning it.”