Amping Up Student Research

Physics major Jay Collins ’15 sketches his findings on auditory perception with visiting Prof. Owen Gross ’04.
Photo by Matt D'Annunzio

Three new gifts help Reed support students doing summer research.

By Randall S. Barton

Independent research—the opportunity for students to delve deep into an unresolved problem in their discipline—has always been a hallmark of Reed. The most obvious example, of course, is the senior thesis. But what happens when students want to pursue research before their senior year?

Christian Graulty ’15 has long been fascinated by the workings of the brain. As a freshman, he begged his professors to let him get involved in neuropsychological research at Reed.

Prof. Enriqueta Canseco-Gonzalez [psychology 1992–] was happy to hook him up with someone doing research over the summer so he could learn how to use the brain-recording equipment. But there was a hitch—she had no funds available to pay him. So Christian, an interdisciplinary biology–psychology major, worked in the library that summer and volunteered his free time in the psych lab learning to do electroencephalography.

Christian’s story—and those of Reedies like him—underscores the growing importance of helping underclassmen pursue summer research on campus.

“Participating in summer research is a tremendous experience of autonomy, independence, and responsibility for students,” says dean of the faculty Prof. Nigel Nicholson [classics 1995–].

Summer research can give students a competitive edge in the job market regardless of whether they intend to go to grad school. “Few professional opportunities do not benefit from an ability to think carefully about difficult problems for long periods of time, apply different tools, and come at it from different angles,” says Prof. Joel Franklin ’97 [physics 2005–].

While some students can afford to do unpaid research, many others need a paycheck. Three new gifts will help Reed support students who want to get vital experience in the lab over the summer.

The Marshall W. Cronyn Student Research Fund

This recently-established fund, named for the legendary Prof. Marsh Cronyn [chemistry 1952–89], provides annual grants for one or more students undertaking special work in chemistry.

The endowment is a gift from Mark Petrinovic ’83, managing director and head of Latin American portfolio management at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York City.

Mark majored in chemistry with Prof. Tom Dunne [chemistry 1963–95] as his thesis adviser, and a lecture series, to which Mark contributed, already existed in Dunne’s name. No endowment honored Cronyn, however, and Mark rectified that with the department’s first endowed research fund.

“My experiences with Tom Dunne and Marsh Cronyn were critical to stripping the bark off an aggressive young man and teaching him the discipline of rigorous thought and academic pursuit,” Mark says. “They had two very different approaches to teaching, but between the yin of one and the yang of the other, it showed me what I was capable of doing. And the ability to do independent research, which was critical to my senior thesis, was a big part of that education.”

The James Borders Physics Student Fellowship

This new fellowship helps physics majors intending to go to graduate school.

As a student at Reed, James Borders ’63 worked during the summer turning stainless steel flanges for an electron-scattering table Prof. John Shonle [physics 1960–66] was building in the physics department, then housed in the basement of Eliot Hall.

“I certainly wasn’t the number one student in our physics class, but Shonle knew I could run a lathe,” says James, who holds graduate degrees from the University of Illinois. “It was a good experience. He’d come in every day or so to find out how I was doing and suggest changes.”

The first recipient of the fellowship, Jay Collins ’15, collaborated with Prof. Owen Gross ’04 examining neural information coding in the earliest stages of auditory perception. The two met when Owen was a visiting assistant professor at Reed in the spring. Having discovered his own field of interest while doing student research, Owen was enthusiastic about collaborating with a Reedie. (He has since resumed his position as a postdoctoral fellow at Oregon Health & Science University.)

“I could give direction to Jay a couple of hours each week, and in a few weeks he made more progress than I was able to in a few months,” Owen says.

The fellowship requires students to write up the results of their research—honing their presentation skills.

The Esther Hyatt Wender Psychology Fund

The ability to think critically and ask the right questions—skills she learned at Reed—served Esther Hyatt Wender ’58 well in a career of developmental and behavioral pediatrics.

As a resident at the Johns Hopkins Medical Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, Esther did an additional year of research on a condition called minimal brain dysfunction—now known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She became an expert on it. A career in academic medicine included teaching and research positions at Georgetown University, the University of Utah, and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

“When I had a little extra money to give to Reed, it seemed appropriate that I should investigate the psychology department, since it’s close to my heart,” Esther says.

The new Esther Hyatt Wender Psychology Fund furthers study in the broad field of human development, including stipends for summer research.

Bang for the Buck

Summer research is particularly helpful to students interested in pursuing graduate study in science and medicine.

“When a student knows how to think critically, read primary sources, design and carry out an experiment, and then publish a paper, the person running the lab doesn’t have to start from scratch,” says Prof. Paul Currie [psychology 2007–], who chairs the undergraduate research committee. “Half of the job is already done.”

Christian Graulty , the book-shelving psychologist we met at the beginning of this article, is a good example. After his cash-strapped freshman summer, he wrote a proposal with Canseco-Gonzalez and won a grant from the Murdock Charitable Trust to do paid research during the next two summers. He has already presented research findings at three conferences—a rare opportunity for an undergraduate.

“Ultimately the value of summer research at Reed is to get one of those coveted MD-PhD positions,” he says. “To get into med school or grad school you need to have publications that show you’re serious about research, that you have questions in a field that you want to answer, and that you’re driven enough to find an answer to those questions.”