Microbiologist and former RISE mentor Allen Laskin works in the lab with Drew University student Amanda Driesse. Laskin retired from RISE in January after mentoring students for 21 years.
Most higher education institutions want to give advanced science students opportunities to conduct rigorous research, but small liberal arts schools sometimes are hampered by staffing and time challenges. One such school—Drew University in Madison, New Jersey—found a unique solution. Drew’s chemistry faculty created The Charles A. Dana Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti (RISE). For more than 30 years, RISE has provided lab space and equipment to retired industrial scientists, enabling them to mentor more than 200 undergraduates majoring in science and mathematics who are interested in research.
The program’s success has earned it the prestigious Merck Innovation Award for Undergraduate Science Education. “I don’t actually know of anybody with a program like this…a formal program in which students do research with industrial scientists,” says RISE founder James Miller, a chemist and professor emeritus and former chair of Drew’s chemistry department and a RISE fellow since 1997. “Research should be an important part of a [school’s] scientific program” because it gives students “a look at what real science is like, as opposed to just coursework,” he contends.
In addition, students benefit because “industrial researchers tend to look at the world differently” from academics, says Jon Kettenring, a statistician and former executive director of Bellcore and Telcordia Technologies. A fellow since 2004, Kettenring has served as RISE’s director since 2008. He notes many incoming freshmen science majors say, “I want to be a doctor” because “they may not be fully aware of the diversity of career paths students with degrees in the sciences can pursue.” He continues, “We open their eyes to the fact that there are other opportunities,” such as being a researcher, a member of industry, or a science writer and communicator, for example.
Miller believes RISE has succeeded at Drew because “we are located in a very rich area for scientists and also for retired scientists” from New Jersey’s many pharmaceutical and telecommunications companies. Beyond sharing their expertise, some RISE fellows like George DeStevens, the program’s founding director, have helped RISE obtain funding. DeStevens, a former executive vice president and director of research at pharmaceutical company Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis), was instrumental in raising more than $1,000,000 for construction of office and laboratory space for RISE. DeStevens “was very well known and well connected,” and many of his fellow scientists became RISE fellows after retiring, according to Miller.
More recently, the program has created a category called RISE associates: retired scientists who “contribute to the program in other very specific ways, such as offering special lectures or providing expertise on esoteric equipment,” says Kettenring. “It’s an opportunity for us to gain some needed expertise or do something very different, and an opportunity for that scientist to continue to be active, which can be very gratifying.”
Miller notes Drew offers these prestigious scientists “more flexibility” than a typical faculty member would have because they are not required to “publish or perish” or attend faculty meetings, allowing them to focus on their lab work with students. “The overall development of the student is what we’re working toward,” not publishing, he emphasizes. “If the results [of the research] are publishable, that’s sort of a fringe benefit.”
“We have no commitments to do teaching here,” Kettenring points out, although some fellows have been involved with teaching through the RISE Science Seminar course, he adds. Led by mathematics and computer science professor Kathleen Madden, the course paired fellows with honors students for a semester to work on an independent research project.
“There’s no better way to get undergraduates interested in science really excited than to get involved in a research activity,” Kettenring contends. “Training students to think, to write…lab work helps develop those kinds of skills,” adds Miller.
Mentors for Life
After graduation, most RISE mentees go on to graduate school or medical school, and the fellows enjoy keeping in touch with them, according to Miller. One graduate Miller continues to mentor is Derrick Wood of the class of 2004, who now teaches high school chemistry at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. Wood describes his involvement with RISE as “a premier experience” working with “notable people from industry who want to give back.”
As an undergraduate, Wood majored in chemistry and minored in education. He says he was drawn to Miller because Miller “came from education, but was instrumental in the chromatography movement” in chemistry, and they shared an interest in analytical chemistry. Wood says he appreciated the experience RISE provided “of diving head-first into real science research.” Projects like building a high-performance liquid chromatograph, which he did with Miller, have enabled Wood to give his high school students similar real-world experiences. “My students really enjoy the opportunity to do college-level research that is not only interesting, but relevant,” he observes.
Wood also credits RISE for the chemistry curriculum he created that was honored with the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation 2010 Life Sciences Educator Award, a $10,000 prize. “My experience at RISE played a big part in my receiving the award, which fosters innovation and research with students,” he reports.
Learn more about RISE at www.drew.edu/rise.