I Can’t – I Have Lab!

by Matt Hutaff

Stacey Wood is happy to be embarrassed.

“Three Scripps students won an award from the National Science Foundation for their research poster at a conference in January 2006,” the assistant professor of psychology says. “It was somewhat awkward as the award was designed for graduate students! They were the only undergraduates presenting at this small and elite conference.” The project by Sasha Jouk ’07, Amy Vanderloop ’07, and Lauren Moneta ’06—”Does Age Bring Predictive Wisdom?”—investigated how people use emotion to help guide decisions regarding the future.

Wood and other Scripps professors are part of the vanguard of a new approach to undergraduate education—directed and interdisciplinary research. While such research is traditionally performed bygraduate students, Scripps coordinates with several other Claremont Colleges to encourage students by giving them graduate-level responsibilities. It’s a move that’s fostered excitement among a number of disciplines, particularly biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology.

“Students’ motivations are diverse,” says Wood. “Some want experience and a letter for graduate school, others are still figuring out: is this for me?” For those who decide it is, several have gone on to pursue their passion at such schools as Stanford, Duke, and Harvard.

Scripps is also partner with Claremont McKenna and Pitzer Colleges in the Joint Science Department, a fusion of biology, chemistry and physics into one intensive, over-arching program. “The most exciting and important problems in science these days, from issues such as global warming to nanotechnology and unsolved questions regarding how the brain works, are all intensely interdisciplinary problems,” says Newton Copp, Sidney J. Weinberg Jr. Professor of Natural Sciences and JSD chair. “If we are to prepare students to work on these problems and questions, then we must help them develop the capacity to think beyond the boundaries of traditional disciplines.”

Training includes a rigorous two-semester long course featuring lectures, discussions, and lab work. The goal, says Copp, is to “provide focal points for bringing together principles and techniques of chemistry, biology, and physics.” Students engaged in the program receive double credit for their work as well as priority for summer research grant positions, and are often so busy with their classes the mantra of “I can’t, I have lab!” has spilled over onto T-shirts they wear.

The National Science Foundation believes in this symbiosis of theory and practice and has awarded the Joint Science Department with a generous $498,000 grant. But for students who have embraced the work load, they’re just excited to be getting their feet wet with real lab time.