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The quality of the faculty is one key to that success. Each of the department’s 10 members has tremendous accomplishments and deep experience in their disciplines, but beyond publications they have passion. For teaching person to person, one on one. Reed biology professor Robert Kaplan, in fact, was chosen from some 600 college and university faculty members as U.S. professor of the year in 1996-97 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

“Reed students come here expecting a level of engagement with the faculty that makes the whole teaching experience personal and unique for each student,” Kaplan says. “All our students want to be excellent, and they are a pleasure to be around for that reason.”

Another key is a think-or-swim approach to the subject.

bio students picture“I’m not aware of another undergraduate biology department that has you read primary literature from the get-go, immerses you in experimental design and execution in every class, holds journal club-style seminars, and just generally expects you to behave like a scientist,” says 2000 grad Jason Oakes. The scientific literature is, to be sure, a serious stretch for college freshmen in an intro biology class—it’s often not that easy to comprehend for biology grad students—but it gets Reed students thinking and analyzing the form and results of other scientists’ work.
Kaplan agrees: “As a faculty we have developed over decades a style whereby we maintain an ‘ideal’ state for our ourselves as functional scientists. This means we all have research programs where we articulate testable hypotheses, design and execute experiments, analyze data, and present results at meetings and in the primary national and international peer-reviewed literature. How to maximize our teaching effectiveness by trading off ‘research-university–level’ research with close collaboration with undergraduates is an awesome task that all
of us work on in our own unique ways. We hope that students can then make the best decisions for themselves about particular career goals, and of course when they decide to become medical doctors or lawyers, or public health workers or teachers, we are proud of all of them and glad that we made the effort to give them a glimpse into what scientists actually do.”

The final piece of the puzzle is the independent project—the second half of each semester, from sophomore year forward, is spent by biology students on an in-depth independent research project of their own choosing. Rather than spend every moment learning about the findings of someone else’s biological research—the staple of most
undergraduate programs—Reed students get a chance to do some discovery of their own (see “Spider woman”).

“This is honest-to-God science in six-week bursts,” says Steve Black. “The independent project is so important to preparation for the thesis—the students will have gotten the fundamental mistakes out of the way and they’re ready, plus they have homed in on what they want to do. The independent projects are small in scope, but they are original and student-centered.”

Independent projects, senior theses, faculty research—all will be enhanced by the new biology building, made
possible by a powerful combination of gifts, grants, and other funding. For example, the 3-D confocal microscope (the department chair’s opinion: “What a killer microscope! We’ll be able to see into cells and embryos in ways that were not possible before.”) was provided by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

bio students picture“The mission of the Reed biology department is the integration of teaching and research,” Black says enthusiastically. “This new facility makes that easier by bringing everything and everyone together. All the tools the students need, including us, are right here. It all comes down to accessibility and interaction between teachers and students.”

And it all comes from the rare atmosphere of Reed, where budding biologists study art and literature, and humanities majors staff nuclear reactors. There must be something to the formula. Donald Kennedy—biologist, editor in chief of the journal Science, and president emeritus of Stanford University—noted that through the 1990s Reed, along with Swarthmore, nearly doubled the proportional Ph.D. production of Harvard and Yale and said, “If the laboratory lights go out at Reed, it’s going to get dark all over the country.” [Kennedy talks more about the need for strong college science programs.]

The coming years will put even more focus on biology—and the ethics of what we’re able to do with it. From stem cell research to the debate over human cloning to genetically modified foods, the questions of what can be done and what should be done will be front-page news. And the students training today in Reed’s respected biology department will be among those providing the answers.

“We have made every effort to be a broad-based liberal arts biology department in a world where such a beast might be on its way out,” Robert Kaplan says. “We maintain our ability to look further forward into the future and understand that preservation of the health of biological systems, from individual human health to global health, will require biologists who understand deeply the relationship between genes, organisms, and environment.”
It’s already gotten very interesting—it’s going to get more so. Watch this space.
End of Article

Todd Schwartz is a Portland-based freelance
writer. This is his first article for Reed.

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