The Drake Formula: An Equation for Tomorrow
Bent over a lab table in Olin Hall, Hannah Moses attaches plastic t-shaped tubes full of minuscule fruit flies to an even larger tangle of tubes. With dials set and switches flipped, air and vaporized ethanol begin to fill the fruit flies’ chamber, and Moses observes how the insects behave “under the influence.” She hopes the assay she is creating with these teeny test subjects will someday lead to improved treatment options for individuals suffering from alcohol dependence.
“Creating a model of behavior in these fruit flies is very interesting to me because it can be used by others in their research dealing with alcohol preference in fruit flies,” says Moses, a senior psychology major and neuroscience minor. “Nobody has set up a behavior model like this with these insects before.”
Similar scenes of groundbreaking opportunity are commonplace at Drake, where initiatives such as the Bucksbaum Lecture Series and Drake University Science Collaborative Institute (DUSCI) bring such prestigious scientists and science journalists as Neil deGrasse Tyson, James Balog, and Ira Flatow to campus. They’re also a welcome sight in a state that needs workers skilled in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, collectively referred to as STEM. According to Iowa Workforce Development, STEM-related job growth is expected to exceed that of any other employment sector in Iowa through 2018. However, only 12 percent of Iowa undergraduates currently enroll in STEM majors, compared to 15 percent nationally.
The academic tide is beginning to turn at Drake: Students in STEM-related majors jumped by more than 13 percent between 2008 and 2012. Moreover, the number of students indicating an interest in math, science, and technology on their applications to Drake has grown by almost 30 percent since 2009.
Rising interest is likely connected to an intensified nationwide focus on K-12 STEM education, but the University’s shifting enrollment could also reflect the draw of the hallmarks of a Drake education.
The hands-on research possibilities available to Drake undergraduates are unmatched at research institutions—referred to as R1s in the higher education community. Graduate students are the main research force at these universities. Their undergraduates, if they even get into the lab, are often entering data or meticulously scrubbing glassware.
The cornerstone of research at Drake is student-faculty collaboration. Students often help create the investigations and guide experiments, not simply perform tasks as dictated by the professor. Many students and faculty members have co-authored studies published in a wide variety of scientific and trade publications, such as the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Journal of Mental Health Research in Intellectual Disabilities, Physiology & Behavior, and Restoration Ecology.
John Emmons, a junior physics, math, and computer science triple major, boasts many student-faculty collaborations, including an interdisciplinary project with Tim Urness, associate professor of computer science, and Adina Kilpatrick, assistant professor of physics. Their research encompassed multiple areas, including computer science, artificial intelligence, physics, and biology.
“In addition to learning many technical skills in these areas during the project, Dr. Urness and Dr. Kilpatrick also taught me a lot about academic research in general,” says Emmons. “Instead of solving the problems I may have had, they gave me the tools to solve them on my own. I am now much more confident in my ability to conduct independent research.”
The team’s goal was to better understand the three-dimensional structure of proteins using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. Urness and Kilpatrick served as advisers and partners on the project, with Emmons—recent recipient of a prestigious Goldwater Foundation Scholarship—leading the experiments. Throughout the project, Emmons fine-tuned a software program he wrote that organizes NMR data in a way that produces the sequences of the amino acids of a protein.
This seemingly foreign language of advanced science bonded the researchers in a common cause: Creating such a program would enable future researchers to more quickly analyze the huge number of unknown proteins discovered by the rapidly evolving field of genomics. This ability to propel genetic research could lead to a number of breakthroughs in disease treatment and prevention and other health-related areas.
“John was very independent about this research,” says Urness. “He would bring novel ideas to our discussions. In many ways, working with him was like working with a colleague. John taught me a lot about biology and reminded me how resourceful Drake undergraduate students can be.”
While Drake professors’ primary focus is teaching, research plays a vital role—not only in faculty members’ professional development but also in the student learning experience.
“Research projects really are the core way that I teach students how to do science—you can’t get a sense for how to design, implement, and analyze a field study in a wetland or prairie by reading a book,” says Keith Summerville, associate professor of environmental science and associate dean, whose research interests include ornate box turtles, prairie restoration, and conservation. “A place like Drake benefits from research-committed faculty because it allows students to get exposure to how STEM fields function in the professional world.”
Benefits and challenges often arise when working with undergraduate students in class and in the lab. Students’ preparation for college-level STEM coursework and research varies widely, according to professors. Yet limited exposure in high school can sometimes prove to be a bonus in the college classroom.
“One thing I particularly appreciate while working with undergraduate students is their scientific naiveté,” says Pramod Mahajan, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences. “They are not afflicted with the virus of preconceived ideas or pet hypotheses. My students ask me very innocent but interesting questions and make me think differently at times.”
The Drake undergraduate research experience extends beyond campus. Along with study in a chosen STEM field, the liberal arts core of a Drake education helps students develop the ability to think critically and communicate their knowledge to the broader community, to see possibilities for how STEM-driven advances benefit society.
Adam Riesselman, a senior chemistry and biochemistry, cell, and molecular biology double major, sees the connection between his coursework and research with one international issue in particular—hunger.
Through various research experiences at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in El Batan, Mexico; the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research arm in Ames, Iowa; and now DuPont Pioneer in Johnston, Iowa, Riesselman has worked with transgenic crops, experimenting with beneficial genetic traits that may help food production keep pace with the world’s growing population.
“I have been able to apply what I’ve learned at Drake University in a challenging, fast-paced environment [at DuPont Pioneer]; moreover, I can see how my work will be applied to increase food supply in our world,” says Riesselman, another Goldwater scholar.
DuPont Pioneer President Paul Schickler, BN’74, GR’83, emphasized such awareness and ambition in his commencement address to the Drake graduating class of 2013. “Leadership is something that is going to be greatly needed in the years ahead because we are facing an unprecedented task—the enormous challenge of figuring out how we are going to feed the world in the next 50 years. I’m convinced the world’s future depends on the imagination, expertise, and creative thinking your generation brings to bear.”
Faculty and administration alike acknowledge room for improvement in order for Drake to remain relevant in STEM education. Increased internal and external funding and better facilities are all areas of need.
The Drake Undergraduate Science Collaborative Institute (DUSCI) is one way students of all majors can get involved with research. DUSCI promotes student/faculty research experiences across disciplines, strives to increase scientific literacy, and provides opportunities to engage the larger community in science and math. Participating students share their research projects with the public in the annual Drake University Conference on Undergraduate Research in the Sciences (DUCURS). DUSCI also sponsors a competitive summer research program. Students work with a faculty mentor to create a research project proposal.
The Next Generation
With the many STEM resources on campus and continued commitment to partnering with the community, Drake is situated to spark the younger generation’s interest in science, technology, and math.
In the spring of 2012, Drake was named one of six regional STEM hubs by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. Drake and the hub are tasked with increasing student interest and achievement, developing a stronger workforce in STEM fields, and stimulating statewide economic development. In the first year of the program, the hub at Drake has laid the groundwork for more developments over the next two years, many of which will involve Drake faculty and students.
“Availability of facilities attracts faculty with strong research programs, which in turn attracts bright students,” says Mahajan. “Research productivity increases, and the cycle of success continues. In smaller institutions like Drake, the facilities are limited, which hinders productivity.”
While resources are limited, important steps have been taken to strengthen the sciences at Drake, most notably with recent updates to facilities and the creation of new lab space. In the Ellis Disease Prevention Lab, students monitor vital signs, virtually explore the human body with an Xbox controller, and conduct wellness screenings for real patients. Meanwhile, undergraduates in white lab coats peer through lenses at microscopic DNA strands, determining how an individual’s genetics affect the body’s response to medication in the Pharmacogenomics Lab. The University has made such additions and renovations to existing STEM facilities a top priority.
Off campus, the environmental science and policy department recently partnered with Metro Waste Authority to establish the Environmental Learning Center in Runnells, Iowa, where students co-manage 1,000 acres of prairie, forest, and wetlands.
With these developments, administrators and faculty are optimistic about the future of STEM at Drake. Further developing innovative practices of teaching—which include research—is an important part of the Drake University Strategic Plan 2013–2017, reflecting an institutional commitment to STEM curricula and professional preparation.
“We need to prepare ourselves for those 21st-century learners,” says Provost Deneese Jones. “They don’t want to be passive learners; they want to be engaged. And what better way to do that than through research? We’ve got all the right elements to make a big change. We’ve got a rocket here.”