Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Undergraduate research, mentoring, and student learning

21st Century Pedagogies

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The course that I have taught most often over my Carleton career is organic chemistry, a subject with a reputation for being forbidding and arcane. But it offers such a powerful view of the natural world that it’s necessary for anyone interested in biology or chemistry, and besides, it’s a beautiful subject and many students come to enjoy it. At forty to fifty students the courses are large, and it’s a challenge for a teacher to get to know the students very well. Just about every year, a Carleton senior asks me to write a letter of recommendation, when my only contact with him or her has been in this course. Often my response is “Surely you know professors in your major department better than you know me”. Too often, the reply is “No, I don’t”, which always saddens me. It means that the student has not found a close relationship with a faculty member. For me, this indicates a real flaw in the fabric of the student’s undergraduate education. In a recent book called Teaching Matters, President Evan Dobelle of Trinity College says it this way, “The heart of the liberal arts college is the close, mutually sustaining intellectual engagement of teacher and student united in a quest for knowledge and understanding.”

Mentoring is the term most people use these days to describe this kind of human engagement. It is a fundamental part of teaching and learning. For successful mentoring there has to be a human connection. It means caring about people, believing in them, and expecting the best from them, communicating all of this at a personal level. Faculty mentors open students to the gifts they have, to believe in themselves. Mentoring is the frangipani of undergraduate education. Frangipani is an Italian word, which can mean an exquisite perfume or a pastry with cream, sugar, and almonds. The broader meaning I’ve seen in cooking refers to an ingredient that isn’t required in a dish. The food will taste good without frangipani. But when it’s present, the taste is indescribably better. The experience becomes memorable.

I became a teacher because I love to learn, because the world is such a fascinating place, and I’ve worked to find ways in which my students can share my curiosity and passion for learning. This has led me to develop opportunities that enable students to experience the process of science. Science is not a very good spectator sport. Early on, I knew that doing research can be an effective way to learn chemistry. And besides I’ve loved it. It’s provided me with intellectual refreshment and exceptional mentoring opportunities. My spirits always rise as I anticipate summer research. If you’ll remember, President Dobelle’s statement said that the heart of the liberal arts college is the close, mutually sustaining engagement of teacher and student.

In my experience, there is nothing quite so powerful in teaching as student-faculty partnerships in research projects, in the conversations that occur when neither knows the answers to the questions, but both care deeply about seeking them out. Of course, the learning is often messy and the results ambiguous. Risk-taking is necessary, and the context is always important. In chemistry and the other natural sciences students and faculty work together as colleagues on research projects, where we are fellow scientists on a day-to-day basis, committed to the process of discovery. This, better than any other way I know, shows the personal, hands-on nature of science, that it is a dynamic human endeavor.

I’d like to tell a brief tale of our undergraduate research at Carleton. Our goal has been to understand how organic chemical reactions take place, particularly the pathways by which enzymes catalyze biochemical reactions. Enzymes are proteins, large molecules that are the worker bees of our bodies. They are the class of proteins that catalyze, that is speed up and regulate, the chemical reactions on which our lives depend. They are superb at what they do. When we began our research, the dogma of the day was that one could safely assume that after 2 or 3 billion years of evolution the catalysis done by enzymes had been perfected. It was as efficient as it could ever become.

Our overall project was to understand the factors which control 3-D regulation in the addition and elimination of water in biochemical metabolites. Chemists use the word stereochemistry for this 3-dimensional feature of chemical reactions. We hoped to understand why nature was using an unusual stereochemistry for some groups of compounds but normal stereochemistry for others. Here was a fundamentally important question that we had the expertise to address and that no one else was working on. In fact, some said that the research simply couldn’t be done, especially by undergraduates. We set out to prove otherwise, and it has been quite an adventure.

In my laboratory we have always worked together as a team, even though individual students have their own projects. Collaborative learning, working in teams, has long been a common practice in the natural sciences. Perhaps most importantly, we had a broad research problem that was easily divisible into small, 10-week summer projects that my students could sink their teeth into and make measurable progress in the time they had. In other words, they could taste success in our intellectual adventure.

The compounds we needed to study didn’t exist, and we had to invent the methods to make them, which was harder than I thought it would be. Therein lies a tale. We had reached an impasse in our research. If we couldn’t make the necessary substrates, the project was impossible. During a lecture trip I learned about a new synthetic approach, but when we tried it using the usual organic solvents, the reaction was an unproductive mess. Peter Vreede, a Carleton senior, who was one of my research colleagues at the time, brought me the bad news. He also said that he had written a paper about this reaction in his advanced organic chemistry course and suggested that we use water as the reaction solvent. I thought surely he should know that his suggestion was implausible, but remembering that I had been talking about giving students ownership of their projects, I said OK, give it a try. Three days later he came into my office, smiled, showed me his positive result, and said “SEE”. It had worked beautifully.

After that we were able to publish our initial papers. I had naturally assumed that the unusual stereochemistry must be the most efficient pathway for the groups of compounds where nature used it. That was the dogma in the field. In enzymatic catalysis, nature always uses the most efficient pathways...doesn’t it? But there was a problem. The unusual pathway used by some enzymes didn’t seem to be particularly efficient in the reactions of the model substrates we had studied so far. Then, using a new method we had developed, we decided to study one of the actual metabolic substrates used by nature. When Katie Moerke brought me the result of her initial experiments, the scales fell away from my eyes, and I realized that the accepted dogma was wrong. It is likely that some enzymes have not been perfected by 2 or 3 billion years of evolution, but nonetheless are perfectly good enough for the job they do in living organisms. Of course we had to prove it, and that was another challenge, but we were able to publish our results in 1995. In a small way, our research led to a paradigm shift in the field. But in spite of this, my research with undergraduate colleagues has been about people, and mentoring is a central part of it. I am prouder of my students than of our research results. Working with students on their research projects is arguably the best mentoring I have done and perhaps the best teaching.

To my mind, the mentoring connections between students and faculty are what make education memorable. They are the frangipani of the undergraduate experience.