Reflecting on 35 Years of Faculty-Student Research Collaboration and Discovery

In this installment of CURchem, we are proud to share the parting wisdom of our friend and colleague Dr. Roger Rowlett as he retires from a 35 year career in chemistry and undergraduate research. In the month of April, we will be sharing Roger’s “rules” for undergraduate research. This week – Take advantage of the good luck and good mentors that come your way


Time flies when you are having fun. It seems like a short time ago (in reality it was 1982) that I joined the Colgate faculty and began my career as a professor and mentor to so many undergraduates in Chemistry and Biochemistry. I am privileged to have encountered so many wonderful colleagues, mentors, and undergraduate students during that time, and to have been a part of the enterprise of scientific discovery. Along this journey, I think I might have learned a thing or two. I share some not-so-random thoughts here.

Rule #1. Take advantage of good luck

 “If you come to a fork in the road, take it”—Yogi Berra

Sometimes it’s just better to be lucky than good. When fortune comes your way, take advantage. That fork in the road just might lead to a mighty fine place! I’ve had my lucky breaks along the way.

fork-sneaks-760x400As an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, I was doing well and strongly interested, but perhaps not terribly challenged, in my very large Cell Biology class. At the end of one of these classes, my professor, Dr. John Hardman, took two of us aside. I thought for sure the two of us would be lectured to about our apparent lack of engagement. To our surprise, he informed us that we seemed bored and would be signing up for 3 credit hours of research in his laboratory. No ifs, and, or buts. Next thing I knew, I was assigned a beautiful laboratory desk space, my own pipettors and tools (very cool!), and a key to the building and laboratory spaces (even cooler!). Group meetings were on Fridays (with beer and munchies in those days), and the undergrads were required to present in journal club every other week.

My career plans, which were originally focused on M.D. programs, veered strongly toward basic research in biochemistry and earning a Ph.D.

I made it my mission to bring to journal club the weirdest and zaniest research papers: one of my presentations described the discovery of antifreeze proteins in Antarctic fish. I got frequent groans for my journal club choices, which I found immensely satisfying. My research project involved chemical modification of tryptophan synthase, a key enzyme in an essential amino acid synthesis pathway in E. coli. My career plans, which were originally focused on M.D. programs, veered strongly toward basic research in biochemistry and earning a Ph.D. I was truly lucky to be among one or two of 50-100 students to be afforded this opportunity. Fork taken.

Sometimes it’s just better to be lucky than good. When fortune comes your way, take advantage. That fork in the road just might lead to a mighty fine place!

My second break came when looking for a job after a year in a postdoctoral position. I must have applied to dozens of faculty positions at research universities and undergraduate institutions, and industrial positions, too. All my callbacks came from predominantly undergraduate institutions. My potential employers knew something about me that I did not apparently know myself. Evidently, I was destined for a career melding teaching and research. I wound up at Colgate, where I was thoroughly impressed by my future colleagues and undergraduate students. I’m pretty sure I took the correct fork in that road….

Rule #2: Mentors are important!

“Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Just because you managed to navigate a Ph.D. degree doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from mentoring throughout your career. Behind every successful individual there will be a clutch of excellent mentors. Mine have been legion. I’ve singled out only a few here. 20090430_x-ray_diffract_049-02162017-2David Silverman, my postdoctoral advisor at the University of Florida College of Medicine, was an outstanding and patient mentor. From him I learned how to review and write research manuscripts, among other things. He also refused to give me a key to the lab to work after hours, and admonished me to maintain a sane balance between work and personal life. He convinced me, by example, that it was possible to be a productive scientist without giving up the rest of your life. (What a great lesson!) He was also a good egg for tolerating the harmless but endless practical jokes in our lab. Joe Thurner, a senior member of Colgate Chemistry when I joined the department, shared many secrets of teaching with me over coffee each morning before and after class. David Lewis, a first-wave leader in CUR, provided critical guidance and encouragement to write competitive research grants, and insisted that I join CUR. John Cochran, the department chair when I was hired (and a long-time CUR Councilor) provided amazingly simple but critical advice about being a successful department chair and administrator. John also encouraged me to run for election to the Council in CUR. Later in my career were important research mentors at the National Institutes of Health: Edith Wilson Miles and David Davies in the National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. These high-profile scientists were incredibly generous of time and laboratory space for a visiting scientist, and helped me acquire new and essential research skills.

CUR has opened doors for me to the larger higher education community in a way that no other group or organization has. Service to CUR will broaden your perspective on undergraduate research and its place in higher education.

I also have to give credit to CUR as a mentor. (Can an organization be a mentor?) CUR is a reservoir of experience, leadership, and role models for teacher-scholars. Members of CUR, especially the Chemistry Councilors who are wont to expound broadly about teaching, research, and college administration over a few beers, are just plain fun. CUR has opened doors for me to the larger higher education community in a way that no other group or organization has. Service to CUR will broaden your perspective on undergraduate research and its place in higher education.

Rule #3: When being lax is a good thing.

“The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.”—Denis Waitley

20130228_chemistry_075-opt
I discovered then that undergraduates were excellent researchers and wonderful colleagues, and once trained they performed best if you left them largely alone to do their work.

I became involved as an undergraduate research supervisor early in my career, during graduate school. My lab group was very small (me!) so my Ph.D. supervisor agreed to hire undergraduates to add valuable hands to the lab. I discovered then that undergraduates were excellent researchers and wonderful colleagues, and once trained they performed best if you left them largely alone to do their work. Undergraduates can thrive and professionally grow when given appropriate responsibility and accountability. To this day—and I’m plagiarizing my good colleague Kim Frederick for the alliterative mentoring stereotypes—I am more of an “orbiting overlord” than a “hovering helper” in the research laboratory. It is a formula that has worked for me for more than 35 years.

Have confidence in your undergraduate students, prepare them well, and expect that mistakes will occasionally occur.

Have confidence in your undergraduate students, prepare them well, and expect that mistakes will occasionally occur. One of the bonuses of giving your students permission to make mistakes is that they sometimes discover strange and wonderful things. This has happened more than once in my lab, and these accidental discoveries have led to peer-reviewed published works. I have no problem turning the keys over to my students to run the X-ray diffractometer, stopped-flow spectrometer, robotics equipment, TXRF spectrometer, etc. We haven’t destroyed anything yet. Give your students room to grow, and they will!

A student reflects…

Anita H. Corbett, Ph.D. Professor of Biology, Emory University

As I reflect on my more than 30-year career as a biochemist, I recall my very humble beginnings in a small room, more like a closet really, just inside the doors of the chemistry building on the Colgate University campus. In this small room crowded with the stopped-flow instrument, too much dirty glassware, and buckets filled with the source of our precious carbonic anhydrase II, my passion for science was ignited. While I have only vague memories of the classroom lectures that led me to develop into a biochemist and eventually a Professor at Emory University School of Medicine, I will always recall my discussions with my scientific mentor and role model, Dr. Roger Rowlett.

In this small room crowded with the stopped-flow instrument, too much dirty glassware, and buckets filled with the source of our precious carbonic anhydrase II, my passion for science was ignited. ~~Anita H. Corbett, Ph.D. Professor of Biology, Emory University

07bFor years, Roger has generously shared his time, his intellect, and his enthusiasm for scientific enquiry with a multitude of undergraduate students at Colgate. To begin to illustrate the broad impact that Dr. Roger Rowlett has had on the scientific and biomedical landscape, consider the following numbers. In 1984, I graduated from Colgate and went to graduate school to pursue a PhD; my lab mate was off to pursue an MD. Let’s make a conservative assumption that Roger has had similar numbers of trainees, 2 each year, throughout his many years at Colgate. This would mean that Roger has directly mentored ~35 students who went on to become Doctors of Philosophy and ~35 Medical Doctors. If we quite conservatively estimate that each of these trainees has in turn trained an average of 10 students, then Roger is already responsible for ~700 individuals who populate the fields of science and medicine. Of course, as with most luminaries, his legacy will increase further with each subsequent generation of trainees.

I feel so very honored and privileged to have been one of Dr. Roger Rowlett’s early trainees in his long and prestigious scientific career at Colgate University. I was fortunate to learn from and be inspired by one of the best scientists I have ever encountered in my career. I hope that, despite his inherent modesty, Roger can appreciate the impact that he has had over the years and realize that the scientific passion he has inspired in future generations will never retire even if he does.


7cof1bd8Dr. Roger Rowlett recently retired from the faculty at Colgate University where he served for 35 years in the Department of Chemistry, many of those years as the GORDON & DOROTHY KLINE PROFESSOR OF CHEMISTRY and Chair. Roger was a founding member, a long-time Chemistry councilor and served as President of the Council for Undergraduate Research.

 

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