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Student summer research displaced as lab sciences migrate to new facilities

<rleton’s science departments are adjusting their funded summer research offerings as migration into the new Integrated Science Facility will prevent access to functional labs and research spaces. While equipment is transferred into the Integrated Science Facility, Olin and Hulings will both be closed. The main departments affected are Chemistry, Biology and Physics and Astronomy.

Student summer research is normally funded in four ways: the Towsley Endowment, the Kolenkow-Reitz Fellowship, Internships and Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs). The Towsley Endowment funds faculty-student research; faculty members apply for this money and choose to work with students on- or off-campus. Regular on-campus summer research is largely funded through this endowment. The Kolenkow-Reitz Fellowship allows students to apply for Carleton funding to work with non-Carleton faculty at other institutions. The Career Center offers a handful of research internships each summer, and REUs are financed by the National Science Foundation.

Gretchen Hofmeister, Associate Dean of the College and Professor of Chemistry, estimated that over a third of Carleton STEM students conducting summer research typically do so on campus. Less than a third go through Kolenkow-Reitz and roughly a third use REUs or internships. In the past three years, an average of 55 students have conducted summer research on-campus in the affected departments.

Although on-campus research is restricted this year, faculty can still apply to the Towsley grant to take students off-campus. Hofmeister did acknowledge, however, that funding off-campus research is more costly than on-campus, as well as less feasible for some faculty members. Because the full Towsley Endowment is exhausted each year, if there is leftover Towsley money, it will essentially be redirected to the Kolenkow-Reitz fund.

Hofmeister noted that the typical summer research within the affected fields costs the college about $275,000. She also estimated it will cost $100,000 more to maintain a comparable amount of positions this summer—with funds from individual departments, endowed grants like the Towsley and Kolenkow-Reitz and administrative offices.

“We set aside additional funding in my office knowing that this is an extraordinary year and wanting to make sure students do not feel shortchanged. The President’s office also generously stepped in and is supporting continued faculty research,” Hofmeister explained. “I’m confident that we have enough to pay for all of it. Now, it’s just a matter of trying to get the students and the opportunities lined up, which each department handles independently.”

Chemistry is the only department explicitly offering a formal replacement for on-campus research: actively placing students at other institutions with outside faculty. In addition, chemistry professor Deborah Gross acknowledged one faculty member—visiting professor Kim Huynh—who plans to bring students to collaborators at the University of Maryland. “As for the rest of us,” she said, “that kind of travel and taking students along didn’t make sense—especially with the commitment we have to moving labs this summer.”

Throughout the last few months, the department has contacted faculty at other institutions to find spots for students who will be supported by Carleton funds. The department has previously connected students to outside faculty for the regular Kolenkow-Reitz Fellowship, but this year is unique in how aggressively the department has pursued positions. Currently, there are roughly 20 institutions—all large research universities—that have tentatively agreed to take on one or two Carls.

“Essentially, we are serving as a clearing house. We’re taking in applications and trying to match people with their preferences by placing them into the labs that we have already arranged—pending their approval,” explained Gross.

Gross does not foresee this change leading to research applications becoming more competitive. Even in normal summers, the department receives more applicants than they have spots, and the ratio fluctuates from year to year. “I wouldn’t worry,” she stated. “If I were a student, I’d apply for everything—off-campus and through this program—but I don’t think this summer will be dramatically different in terms of competition.”

The physics department is more varied in its plans to preserve research opportunities. Arjendu Pattanayak, Chair of Physics and Astronomy, estimated that roughly 15 to 20 students—split between three to six faculty members—conduct on-campus research each summer. The department aims to maintain this number of opportunities, with different faculty members taking different approaches.

Pattanayak himself typically stays on-campus and conducts research with students during summers. This year, however, he will travel to Perugia, Italy to work with collaborators. Pattanayak intends to bring students there as well, but the details have not been solidified. When asked about the challenges in bringing students off-campus, Pattanayak joked, “The paperwork is a lot more complicated.”

As for students conducting research off-campus, he said, “Start-up will be harder. Here, they just stroll in on the first day, sit down at the same computers that they’ve been sitting at, and start going. There, it’ll be a lot more confusing. It’ll shake them off their normal routine and rhythm, but it should be rewarding.”

In terms of broader department plans, Pattanayak noted a variety of ways that faculty are preserving their own research and providing student opportunities: “There’s faculty-student travel—for example, I’m basically displacing my group to Perugia. Others are displacing themselves but sending students elsewhere, and some are on sabbatical. These are all individual faculty choices. Most of us are at least looking for places to send students. It might be as easy as the University of Minnesota; it might be Boulder. It might even be LIGO in France with a former Carleton faculty member.”

Jennifer Wolff, Chair of Biology, noted that her department is also adjusting to the building closures in a multitude of ways.
She estimated that there are typically seven or eight students on-campus each summer, with more in biochemistry and neuroscience. Wolff—like Gross and Pattanayak—expects the overall number of research opportunities to stay steady though “those opportunities might look a little different and be distributed between work at Carleton and work supported by Carleton funding but done at other institutions.”

Within the department, Wolff highlighted some projects that will remain on campus. “The Arb is available, and Mark McKone and Dan Hernandez will work with students in their research groups here at Carleton. Moreover, Rika Anderson’s group is able to continue doing bioinformatics research on samples from deep-sea hydrothermal vents.”

The department also will make use of faculty-student travel.

“We have faculty traveling with students to Friday Harbor at the University of Washington (Mike Nishizaki) and to the University of Minnesota (Rou-Jia Sung),” Wolff explained. “These are exciting opportunities for students to work with both a Carleton faculty member and with collaborators.”

Biology faculty are also helping students find mentors for the Kolenkow-Reitz Fellowship and internships.

“Some mentors are alumni, who are eager to help current students gain experience; others are scientists who faculty know through professional networks; and some are scientists to whom students have reached out because they find the work really exciting,” Wolff explained.

Though off-campus research is promoted out of necessity this summer, all departments emphasized that off-campus experiences are encouraged even when on-campus positions are available.

As a small, teaching-focused school, Carleton’s research can be limited by a lack of equipment and resources. According to Wolff, students who conduct off-campus research can “come back to Carleton with a deeper understanding of techniques and the literature. They are then able to make strong connections between their experiences and what they’re doing in classes and in research labs.”

Off-campus research is also recommended to gain exposure to diverse experiences. “I personally encourage my students to go away for at least one summer,” said Pattanayak. “Carleton’s faculty-student relationships are different from other institutions, and exposure to other research cultures is very important in my book. We are good about saying, ‘You should see another style of work, see another problem, and make anothernetwork.’”

Gross shared similar thoughts: “Other institutions give students projects of different scales at a different speeds of work. For students interested in experiencing graduate school or clinical research, having that kind of experience can be really useful. On- and off-campus research are both incredibly valuable, and we’re always trying to tell people that they should apply for both.”

Because off-campus research is a regular part of many students’ academic careers, Pattanayak argued that the lack of on-campus positions this upcoming summer is “not actually super disruptive to our culture.”

As the college looks forward, maintaining and evolving student research will remain a top priority.

Hofmeister said, “Once the building opens, we’re going to have some spectacular new facilities, and people are going to want to be here. Faculty-student research is an important campaign priority, so we’re increasing funding all along. Maybe we won’t spend quite this much money again next year, but we’re certainly not trying to stay static.”

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