Kenyon and three other institutions, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, have created a virtual neuroscience department by combining research infrastructure and faculty expertise.
The $500,000 grant allowed faculty at Kenyon, Earlham College, the College of Wooster and Ohio Wesleyan University to work with 16 students during a nine-week program this summer. The grant is another step in Kenyon’s ongoing efforts to help minority, female and first-generation students succeed in science through high-impact experiences such as laboratory research.
“Prior to this summer, I knew my passion lay in research, but I was only in the lab for a maximum of 10 hours a week during the school year,” Kelsey Hauser ’17 said. “This afforded me the opportunity to experience life as a full-time researcher. I am now confident that I would be happy doing this kind of work every day.”
The schools united for the cohesive research group to create what the foundation calls a “research experience for undergraduates” (REU).
“Usually REUs are given to larger universities. REUs tend not to happen at small colleges,” said Hewlet McFarlane, chair of the Department of Neuroscience and co-principal investigator of the grant. “To my knowledge, we are the first to create this kind of multi-school unit to do the work. We have basically created a superschool.”
The grant pays for each of the four schools to have two faculty members each work with two students, one from their own college and one from elsewhere. Last summer, McFarlane worked with Hauser and Wellesley College sophomore Kia Barclay. He also coordinated them with a third student from Kenyon’s Summer Science Scholar program, Sarah Naguib ’17. Naguib participated in all of the grant-related activities. Andrew Engell, the Harvey F. Lodish Development Professor of Natural Science, ran a lab with Henry Quillian ’17 and Josue Parr, a junior from the University of California-Davis. Engell’s lab studied whether people could perceive and process the image of human faces outside of conscious awareness. Quillian presented their results (the brain cannot perceive faces outside of awareness) to the Midwest/Great Lakes Undergraduate Research Symposium in Neuroscience at Ohio State University in October.
McFarlane’s team assisted his ongoing research on autism markers in mice. The summer work built on research Hauser did with McFarlane during the previous academic year, and she is continuing that work this semester.
“During the school year it is difficult to devote as much time as I would like to my work in the lab. As such, I was struggling to get comprehensive results in a timely fashion,” she said. “In contrast, over the summer when I had the time to devote myself fully to research, we got really exciting data in just a few months.”
Biweekly meetings allowed the students to learn about research methods used at the other schools, to update the other teams on research progress and to hear about career opportunities in the sciences. The students had a total of eight days of in-person meetings and at least four virtual meetings with the teams at the other colleges.
The NSF grant builds on a two-year pilot program that was funded by a grant from the Great Lakes Colleges Association. In two years of the pilot program, the consortium of schools trained more than 30 students — and their lab work resulted in data for pilot studies, faculty manuscripts in progress and grant submissions.
Data shows that groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in the sciences benefit more from engaged, authentic research experiences. Data also shows that nationally and at Kenyon the majority of students who leave STEM fields do so during their first two years, with the biggest drop coming between the first and second academic year.
“The grant really emphasizes reaching out to nontraditional populations — people who tend to fall out of science,” McFarlane said.