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Keith Karoly, Biology
The interaction with students is one of the best parts of the job at Reed. One of the early things I noticed here is a lack of distance or formal separation between faculty and students, both in and out of classes. I get people stopping by for profound reasons, ridiculous reasons—there is no inhibition from the students in terms of engaging faculty. If students are not satisfied with what is provided, they will want to know more and will pursue faculty for that.
At Reed, it is possible for undergraduates to make genuine contributions to the fields of biology. A student has the power to spend a summer in a lab and discover something that no one else has ever known. The thesis process, empowering a student to take on a project and go somewhere with it—the student invariably puts their stamp on their work. And my work has been shaped by the work they’ve done with me.
In the biology department, we have excellent resources, in general, for research. In many ways, they are comparable to what some graduate programs have available. We have a large greenhouse facility that allows us to grow plants year-round; we have molecular genetics tools, including a quantitative thermal cycler machine; we have a new faculty member doing genomics research; we have excellent microscopy equipment, physiology, animal, and plant care equipment—all the sorts of things that modern biologists are using.
"A student has
the power to spend a summer in a lab and discover something that no one else has ever known.”
We contrast sharply with many other higher education institutions, including large research universities. Because of the sheer number of students, they don’t have the opportunity to getinvolved—undergraduates have to get ahead of the pack. At Reed, it is more the expectation than the exception.
The thesis is a capstone experience. They take a great measure of pride in being able to take on a problem and turn it into something under their own power. Often, they are doing work on a project related to what the faculty are doing, and typically the work that remains to be done is the more difficult work, so the students meet challenges along the way. Reedies are innovative, independent in taking on those responsibilities. We often find things being modified in ways that wouldn’t have been required if they had asked for help—we may even have a piece of equipment for them. But it’s admirable, because Reedies look around them at what’s available and make it work. In the absence of a tool they don’t just quit—they think about what they can do to proceed. I’ve found students waiting for me first thing in the morning to talk to me about something they’ve discovered.
Some student work has opened up research directions in an unanticipated way. Recently a student did some work on the evolution of a gene that has to do with ribosomal RNA. We had been working with a molecular genetic marker that we thought was telling us something about the relationship between wildflower populations [Delphinium nuttallii]. She took the data from about 60 populations and used GIS to take data layers into a large analysis by mastering this software that no one else in the department knew how to use. And she discovered a strong pattern of temperature correlated to the genetic markers. She finished this project about a year ago, and it led us to formulate some predictions that we’ve confirmed through collaboration with a chemist at Portland State University. She was able to take the basic data we’d collected and put it into a framework that made much more sense, and got answers we had not anticipated at all.
As a biologist, particularly a field biologist, there are so few institutions around the Pacific Northwest, that you don’t bump elbows with other biologists. You can get into projects without stepping on anyone else’s toes in this tremendously biologically rich area. And the rain makes people want to settle down and focus. Spring is harder, because April gives every excuse to flake off! I advise my first-year students during their second semester to plan to have their work caught up when April comes around.