The Art of Science

Sarah Lawrence built its reputation on the arts and humanities. Just don’t tell that to all the undergraduate science students conducting graduate-level research.

They arrived at Sarah Lawrence at about the same time—Drew Cressman, a young biology professor who believed science was as much the province of a small liberal arts college as literature, and Michael LeVasseur ’04, a first-year student with broad interests in biology, anthropology, and music. In his first semester, LeVasseur took Cressman’s genetics class, where he found a mentor and where his interests started to focus, the way they do for many students who find themselves studying science at Sarah Lawrence.

Less than a decade before Cressman joined the faculty in 2000, biology was taught in the basement of a residence hall, almost an afterthought at a school that had built its reputation in the arts and humanities. But when he arrived, Cressman set up an immunology lab in the Alice Stone Ilchman Science Center that would have been at home at a large research university. Working in the lab as a summer researcher, LeVasseur started an experiment that kept subsequent students busy for years to come: exploring how CIITA, a gene important to the immune system, leaves the nucleus of a cell.

“I think a lot of students at Sarah Lawrence are scientists, and they may not know it,” says LeVasseur, who also founded an all-male a cappella group at Sarah Lawrence, Vocal Minority, and later earned a master’s degree in public health and a PhD in epidemiology, and who is now a biostatistician at the University of Pennsylvania. “Some of my most amazing conversations were … with people who were studying economics or politics or theatre and all of us talking about how all of our work really related to each other.”

The Art of ScienceProximity is pedagogy at Sarah Lawrence—the collegial collision of disciplines and ideas, of questions and insights, of professors and students. Sarah Lawrence doesn’t have armies of postdocs, but over the last decade the College has managed to teach undergraduates the whys and ways of research at a level that other science students don’t reach until graduate school.

“Lots of places talk about collaboration, but I would say we have a real model of mentorship at the undergraduate level,” says Kanwal Singh, a physicist who serves as dean of the college. “And that’s very much akin to what happens in graduate school. You start in a research group or with a faculty member, and as you go through your education you develop increasing levels of responsibility, and you become more and more the driver of your own project. The same thing happens here.”

The Summer Science Research Program has been paying students to work in labs like Cressman’s for the last 15 years, but in coming years many more students will get that opportunity because of a recent $2 million gift from Suzanne Salter Arkin ’60. Besides supporting the sciences on campus, Arkin’s endowment will provide stipends for students to work at externships at other institutions. After the endowment was announced, Cressman compiled a list of 700 researchers in the New York metropolitan area. “And then we can begin to match up potential students with those opportunities,” he says.

“Lots of schools offer summer research programs for undergraduates, but I think the thing that really distinguishes ours from others is something that ties in very tightly with our normal pedagogy, and that’s the incredibly tight association and close interaction from the faculty and the undergraduate student,” Cressman says. “We would give them essentially a graduate school experience where they are really responsible for their project, and they are really driving the intellectual direction of that project, with obvious input and oversight from us. But they have ownership.”

“Cross-fertilization is hardwired into the culture of the College in a way that lip service at other institutions doesn’t allow.”

Psychology students gained a new opportunity last summer when a research and practice internship program started. “One of the reasons we wanted to build our program is because we’ve had students go to all sorts of very good summer research programs, but usually they’re shadowing a graduate student or postdoc and doing their work,” says Kim Ferguson (psychology). “That doesn’t fit well with our pedagogy, and we don’t feel that that prepares you to ask the important questions when you go to graduate school.”

Facilities on campus have been upgraded in recent years, including the Maria Goeppert Mayer Physics Laboratory, named for the Nobel laureate in physics who taught math at Sarah Lawrence in the early 1940s, before she was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project. But scientists are not walled off from their colleagues in other fields. “Cross-fertilization is hard-wired into the culture of the College in a way that lip service at other institutions doesn’t allow,” says Cameron Afzal, associate dean of the college and a religion scholar.

Adam Brown (psychology), director of the College’s Cognition and Emotion Laboratory, was an undergraduate at a large research university, the University of Oregon, and when he arrived at Sarah Lawrence he was pleasantly surprised to find the faculty offices were not arranged by academic discipline. “I had a historian on one side and then a writer on the other side,” Brown says. “It made it easy to have conversations and share ideas that crossed disciplinary boundaries.”

The benefits are more than social. “I think we’re now at a point in society where we’ve recognized that tackling the world’s most urgent issues has to be an interdisciplinary response,” Brown says. “So when we’re dealing with issues of public health or the environment, it’s going to be multifaceted and team-oriented. We’re going to need creative problem solving, strong writers, creative thinkers. I feel our students, especially those coming from the natural and social sciences, are going to be leading those responses to these kinds of issues.”

The Art of ScienceKatie Flaherty ’14 was among the first students to work in Brown’s lab. “I actually came to Sarah Lawrence really excited that I never had to take another science class,” Flaherty says. “At SLC, I learned science better than most people would have at a larger school or a more science-driven school, where science is more rote memorization and big classrooms and not much actual delving into the topic.”

Flaherty is now the research manager at NYU’s Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Decision Making, which crosses the borders of neuroscience, economics, and psychology to study the emerging field of neuroeconomics. “I see people come into my department and they have a very segmented background, which is surprising to me,” says Flaherty, who plans to apply to joint doctoral programs in medicine and clinical psychology. “I’m so used to not only having an interdisciplinary education and way of looking at things, but having the ability to move my skill sets from one to another pretty seamlessly.”

Emily Chiu ’11 came to Sarah Lawrence with a plan to become an elementary school teacher, but then she took Cressman’s biology class and worked in his lab. “I fell in love with research,” says Chiu, who is now at the University of Minnesota in a joint MD-PhD program. For her senior thesis Chiu finished the research project started in 2003 by Michael LeVasseur. Their findings were published in the June 2015 issue of The Journal of Immunology, with Chiu as the lead author and LeVasseur, Veronica Fettig ’11, and Cressman as co-authors.