Commentary: Learning to Swim Like a Scholar
A Summer Boot Camp for Molecular Biologists
Each summer Smith hosts the prestigious New England Biolabs Molecular and PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) Summer Workshops.
The program, which has brought more than 2,000 scientists to campus, is known affectionately in the science world as "molecular biology boot camp." Founded in 1986, the program has an international reputation for providing an intensive and cutting-edge primer in molecular biology.
Even beginners to molecular biology are welcome at these summer workshops hosted annually by Smith. Michelle Lizotte-Waniewski '90 is laboratory director for the program, and Steven Williams, Gates Professor of Biology, is a faculty member and director.
The summer workshop came into being while Steven Williams, Gates Professor of Biology at Smith, was on sabbatical in 1986 and working on research at New England Biolabs, a biotech company in the Boston area. After he and Dr. Barton Slatko of that company published papers together on techniques of DNA sequencing, they were frequently contacted by science professionals who wanted to learn more about molecular biology. Williams went to the president of New England Biolabs with the idea for such a program and received an enthusiastic response. The first workshops were held that summer, sponsored by New England Biolabs and offered at Smith. The program has been ongoing on the Smith campus every summer since then. Current lecturers in the program are Williams; Dr. Slatko, whose time has been contributed by Biolabs; and Dr. Alan Scott from Johns Hopkins University.
The workshops are now the campus's
second largest summer program. Despite minimal advertising, the
program is so popular that it has a waiting list each year. Last
summer, 50 scientists attended each of the program's four two-week
"This is an intensive course. Participants are on campus for 14 days. For 13 of those days they spend from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. in lectures and in the labs, with short breaks for meals. It's a complete immersion in molecular biology," explains Michelle Lizotte-Waniewski '90, the laboratory director for the program.
The participants choosing to follow this rigorous schedule and live in Smith dorms are doctors, medical researchers, technicians and research associates. They range from medical students to cardiothoracic surgeons practicing at Massachusetts General Hospital. Recent participants have included dentists, neu-robiologists and researchers studying eating disorders and addictions. Approximately 35 percent of the participants come from medical schools and research foundations, 35 percent from industry and 30 percent from private foundations.
"We see this workshop as an important
service to the scientific community," says Williams. "We
train scientists from so
One way that happens is by example. While the program strives to ensure that half of the participants are women, this isn't always possible given that the field of science remains disproportionately male. But the program's teaching staff is chiefly female. Along with Lizotte-Waniewski, the staff includes both undergraduate and graduate students from Williams' lab in the Department of Biological Sciences at Smith. Sandra Laney AC '96 and Lori Saunders Ph.D. '00 are the other two main laboratory instructors.
The staff also includes three or four Smith undergraduates. Because they have so recently studied the techniques being taught, the students relate closely to the veteran scientists who are beginners in molecular biology. "The undergraduates get a chance to informally teach -- and to relate as students of science with people who, outside of Smith, are often renowned in their fields," says Williams.
Smith students also benefit from the instruments that the summer program provides. Because of the program's reputation, companies are eager to donate cutting-edge molecular biology kits and equipment, all of which are housed at Smith and used throughout the academic year. As a result, Smith students have access to four automated DNA sequencers (which cost between $150,000 and $250,000 each) and other advanced instruments. These instruments are used in courses and in research conducted by Smith special studies, honors and graduate students. They are also available to other faculty members and their students throughout the year.
"For an undergraduate institution to have this equipment -- and for it to be used by students -- is unheard of," says Lizotte-Waniewski. "It gives Smith students an incredible advantage as scientists."
Students also benefit through an alumni
network that spans the sciences. Having experienced Smith's leadership
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