Occasionally we are called upon to substantiate the promise of a liberal arts education. Our alumni are often asked whether an undergraduate degree from an institution such as Lawrence will pave the way to a successful career in business or acceptance into a leading graduate school. Some people believe the phrase “liberal arts” implies the absence of a science curriculum or that a small private college education is somehow lesser than that of a large public university.
It’s time — long past time — for us to put these notions to rest.
Thomas Steitz ’62, who returned to his alma mater for Commencement Weekend, is very persuasive proof that a passion for science nurtured at a small liberal arts college can lead to acceptance into the very best graduate programs and extraordinary success as a scientist — Nobel Prize winning success.
We were exceedingly honored to have Dr. Steitz, a 2009 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2010. In his remarks, he lauded Lawrence’s liberal arts backdrop as the ideal setting for science success, saying “small colleges provide a more mentoring environment with smaller classes that allow the opportunity for students to participate in the learning process and the teachers have a very different orientation towards education, being focused on teaching, not advancing their own research career.”
Dr. Steitz added that the “cross-training” in the arts and humanities promotes the development of critical thinking skills and facility with written and oral communications. He singled out the conservatory as having deepened his appreciation for music and noted that he participated in the band, orchestra and choir during his years at Lawrence.
Two years ago, the National Science Foundation (NSF) released a report that examined where scientists and engineers who had earned Ph.D.s obtained their undergraduate degrees. Of the 50 top Ph.D.-producing schools (colleges producing the most alumni with science and engineering Ph.D.s per hundred bachelor’s degrees awarded), the majority were liberal arts colleges. Only three public institutions cracked the top 50. (Lawrence ranked 37th.) The NSF cited undergraduate research opportunities as one of the most important factors leading students from liberal arts colleges to science and engineering Ph.D.s.
In May, we announced that Professor Nick Maravolo has accepted an appointment for the next two years to develop and lead a program called LU-R1: Partnership Opportunities for Students.
The program aims to:
• Create new opportunities for our students to work in labs at research universities (R1) and other settings, such as government agencies and clinical research settings, for periods of 10-12 weeks.
• Strengthen the links between Lawrence and our alumni who direct research labs or projects to help create these opportunities.
• Provide research experiences to our students that may help them to conceive or undertake more diverse Senior Experience projects in the sciences.
• Enlist alumni researchers as external advisors to Senior Experience projects in the sciences to supplement the guidance provided by our own faculty and departments.
Professor Maravolo’s broad knowledge and contacts with Lawrence alumni, outstanding advising skills and knowledge of our current students, and interest in building an important new program for Lawrence have prepared him well for this important role. Eleven students have been placed in research positions this summer and we plan to expand significantly the number of opportunities during the next two years. I am deeply grateful to Nick for his willingness to develop LU-R1: Partnership Opportunities for Students, which will begin with a focus on the natural sciences, and subsequently widen to accommodate demand from other disciplines.
As we prepare for the next class of Lawrentians, I hope you will continue to promote your alma mater as an institution that prepares its students for the pathway of their choosing, and take the time to explain the true benefits of a Lawrence University education. And, if you are aware of research opportunities that might be open to our students, I strongly encourage you to contact Professor Maravolo.
I leave you with the words of our Nobel Prize Laureate, Thomas Steitz, from his 2010 commencement address:
“I have three recommendations for you. First, always pursue a pathway that excites you. Second, do not be afraid to change the direction of your pathway if a new and more exciting opportunity arises. Finally, learn from and be guided by many mentors and return the favor to others … Your need for learning will continue, but you now have the motivation and skills to find the right path for you; enjoy the journey!”
Enjoy your summer,