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reed magazine logoAutumn 2008

What I Did Last Summer:

How endowed research funds support collaborative summer projects at Reed

Suzy Renn, assistant professor of biology, and My Linh Nguyen ’09 in Renn’s lab

It’s like learning a new way to flip an omelet,” says My Linh Nguyen ’09 about learning a new lab technique from Suzy Renn, assistant professor of biology, last summer. “It’s like cooking. You get a product in the end. Whether it’s significant or not, it’s really cool.” The technique Nguyen worked on is microarray analysis of RNA, and the opportunity to learn it in Renn’s lab over the summer came from the Reed College Science Research Fellowship (RCSRF), an endowed research fund at Reed.

Nguyen and Renn submitted a joint propqosal to win competitive funding from RCSRF, which supports significant collaborative summer research carried out by teams of Reed College students and faculty. The endowed fund was created by four Reedies, all of whom are elected members of the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Last summer, the RCSRF funded projects in biology (two awards), physics, chemistry, and psychology. Overall, endowed funds, including the RCSRF, supported 21 students last summer. Additional students received departmental and federal funding. Nguyen’s project with Renn focused on the physiological changes in male cichlid fishes when they are given the opportunity to ascend to dominancy.

Endowed funds like the RCSRF are meant to create a unique learning environment. “During the school year,” says Nguyen, “everything is set out for you, because you only have those four hours. You do get lab work during the year, but not the nitty gritty details and troubleshooting. During the summer, you get to work with your colleagues a lot more, and spend more time with the professor.”

Renn, who has won recent grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, says these summer research experiences provide students with opportunities for accelerated scholarly development. “My Linh has learned a bit about what types of questions interest her,” says Renn. “She’s gone from being a very bright student who can read critically and devise the next experiment to being one who can ask a good question, and then figure out how to study it. While she was the type of student who would take ownership of any project she worked on, I think she is now the type of student to build a project that she owns.” If all goes well, says Renn, the collaboration is synergistic and everyone comes out ahead. “Summer research melds progress on our own research and student educational opportunities,” she says.

Donald Engelman ’62, chair of the Academic Affairs Committee for Reed’s board of trustees and one of the co-funders of the RCSRF, takes undergrad summer researchers in his lab at Yale. “The largest single thing they learn,” says Engelman, Eugene Higgins Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, “is how hard it is to make advances in science. The incrementalism, the amount of work involved, the difficulty of keeping it all organized and under control so you know that what you’ve done is connected to the effect that you’re observing.”

Undergraduate summer research guided Engelman’s own career path, steering him away from physics toward biophysics and membrane science. “The distinction between the subject and the doing of it was very strong for me; it was truly illuminated by the summer experience.” He quotes Mark Twain: “The person that had took a bull by the tail once had learnt sixty or seventy times as much as a person that hadn’t.”

Nguyen says that the hands-on experience of summer research on campus is a great introduction to the thesis year, because it helps you get comfortable in the lab. “When you’re new, you have all these doubts. You’re fearful about making mistakes and upsetting the professor. I learned a lot about lab etiquette, the techniques that Suzy uses, and the lab techniques that I’ll be using for my thesis.”

So what would Nguyen have been doing if it were not for the RCSRF experience? “Taking more classes at Portland State University,” she says. “I like to learn new things.”

reed magazine logoAutumn 2008