Speaking with this years participants in the STEP/Dreyfus program about their work, one would never guess that only five weeks ago none of them had had any college-level research experience. In fact, they had no experience with college life at all—these 10 students are members of the Hamilton class of 2009 and will matriculate as Hamilton students in the fall. The STEP/Dreyfus program provides funding for about 10 first-year students to spend five weeks in their pre-freshman summer working directly with Hamilton faculty doing summer research in biochemistry, chemistry, chemical physics, neuroscience and physics. The Hamilton program is one of only a handful of programs across the nation that allow pre-freshmen to engage in science research before formally matriculating in the institution.
George Shields, Winslow Professor of Chemistry, started the precursor to the funded program in the summer of 2000 when two first-year students worked in his lab. In 2002, he applied for and was awarded the National Science Foundation STEP grant. This grant is intended to increase the number of majors in science, with a particular emphasis on enhancing diversity. In 2003, Professor Shields was awarded the Dreyfus grant, which is specifically for chemistry research. The grants fund approximately 10 students per summer, who apply to the program and interview with their potential faculty supervisor.
This year's students, chosen from 61 applicants, are David Hamilton and Jared Pienkos, working in chemistry with Professor Shields; Louisa Brown, working in chemistry with Associate Professor Karen Brewer; Yuqi Mao, working in chemistry with Associate Professor Ian Rosenstein; Michael Flanders, working with Robin Kinnel, Silas D. Childs Professor of Chemistry; Julia MacDougall and Greg Fullman, working in physics with Associate Professor Gordon Jones; Sharfi Farhana and Tim Currier working in neuroscience with Associate Professor Herman Lehman; and Avery Rizio working in neuroscience with Douglas Weldon, Stone Professor of Psychology.
While they agree there were some difficulties in the beginning with the transition from high school student to college student, such as learning lab techniques and assuming added responsibility, the STEP students found the professors and upperclassmen helpful and respectful. "We are given a lot of respect and responsibility," said Sharfi Farhana, who worked in the college's neuroscience lab.
Leslie North, the college's health professions advisor who handles the administration of the STEP/Dreyfus program, thinks one of the most important aspects to the students is the close working relationship with a professor each student establishes. These relationships usually continue throughout the students' careers at Hamilton. "What makes this program extraordinary is that the collaboration is with a faculty member, not students or a TA [teaching assistant]," she said.
While most students are attracted to the program because of a previous interest in science, their experiences generally reinforce their interest and get them excited about continuing in the sciences at Hamilton.
"I have realized just how much I enjoy trying to answer questions that no one knows the answer to," said David Hamilton, who worked with Professor Shields, and, along with Jared Pienkos, presented his research at the MERCURY conference for computational chemistry held at Hamilton.
Louisa Brown, who chose Hamilton in part because of the chemistry department, valued the chance to get into the lab before classes started. "I am more confident for the fall. I am comfortable in the lab and certain of my interest in science," she said.
Of course, there is more for these students to gain from the program than science. "The benefit is 50 percent social," said North. The first year students live together in campus housing and are exposed to the environment of dorm life. "Keeping the house clean and the dishes done was the hardest part!" said Farhana.
They also participated in student and faculty panels to familiarize themselves with Hamilton, and spent time on the weekends exploring the surrounding areas. Most importantly, the group made close connections with peers.
"I am now completely at home at Hamilton," said Greg Fullman.
When asked if they would recommend the program to future students, the students answered "absolutely". "I'm glad I chose to join the STEP program—it's been invaluable," said Julia MacDougall.
-- by Laura Trubiano '07