Reflecting on 35 Years: Making good choices

We all need a mentor,  especially when you are trying to make an impact using undergraduate research. One of the best mentors we can offer you is Roger Rowlett from Colgate University. Listen and learn from his wisdom accumulated over 35 years in undergraduate research – set goals, choose leadership roles, and make research a priority – your professional viability as scholar and teacher depends on it . If you missed the start of Roger’s rules, then check out the post from last week. 


Rule #4: Think big and have a plan

“People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going.”—Earl Nightingale

Dream big. Set goals. Take Action.

It’s almost a certainty that if you set small goals you will attain small achievements. One can be resigned to your environment or one can be determined to change it for the better. The latter is more fun and leads to better mental health. Thinking big has risks. You will often fail. But you will also often succeed. Patience and persistence is the key. When I joined Colgate, we had only a handful of summer research students on campus each year, and no curricular program required undergraduate research for earning a degree. A condition of my accepting an appointment at Colgate was the permission to require students to commit to a full year of senior research, not just one semester. Done and done, and it is now de rigueur in our department. Today, Colgate hosts more than 200 summer research students across a broad range of disciplines, and many degree programs, including Chemistry and Biochemistry, require undergraduate research and have research-rich, research-supportive curricula.

Roger was a fast learner. In his early years at Colgate, I offered to mentor him in the fine art of grantsmanship. As a warm-up exercise, I gave him six grant proposals to look over, and asked him to put himself in the mind-set of a reviewer and rate each up or down. Three were slick, in the “I’m great and I deserve the money” category, but each had a fatal flaw and had not been funded. The other three were less elegant but more honest with aggressive but realistic goals; they had all been funded. Roger reported back a couple of days later, and he was six for six, not only putting each in the proper category but identifying the main reasons each had been funded or declined. I knew right then that Roger would be successful at attracting support for his own faculty-student research program, and I expected he would become a great mentor of others.

Dave Lewis, Margaret W. Kelly Professor Emeritus, Connecticut College, Affiliated Scientist, Aerodyne Research, Inc.

I set professional goals early in my career. My first goal was to build a laboratory infrastructure that was equivalent to or better than that of my graduate and postdoctoral labs. It was too depressing to think about how I was going to do long-term meaningful research with a UV-visible spectrometer, a 60 MHz NMR, and a box of manual chromatography columns. I was able to build a well-equipped and modern research laboratory in about 5 years, thanks to some university support and a lot of grant-writing, and having modern research infrastructure allowed me to pose and answer research questions just like the big dogs in my research area.

My first goal was to build a laboratory infrastructure that was equivalent to or better than that of my graduate and postdoctoral labs.

I have continuously maintained a commitment to equipping the department or my own research laboratory with the infrastructure to allow us to do the science we want, and not the science we can. Throughout my career I set a goal of having continuous research funding, and publishing something every year. While I may not have always met this goal, it has kept me and my research group motivated to make continuous progress.

“Throughout my career I set a goal of having continuous research funding, and publishing something every year. While I may not have always met this goal, it has kept me and my research group motivated…”

Katherine van den Heever ’09, a biochemistry major, works with the dual source X-ray diffractometer at Wynn Hall. (Photo by Andy Daddio)

Later in my career I set goals to acquire new skills and techniques, and to establish these new technologies at Colgate. One of these goals was to be the first PUI to acquire protein X-ray diffraction equipment. This required obtaining personal training and expertise, and cultivating colleagues who were similarly interested in the necessary professional development and research interests. I missed my goal by one year: Doug Juers at Whitman had the same idea and beat me to the punch! But nevertheless, the goal was achieved after 5 years of planning and plotting, even if we weren’t first. Setting lofty, even seemingly crazy goals can move your research program forward.

Rule #5: Leadership is important!

 “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”—John F. Kennedy

Leadership is important at every stage of your career, and goes hand-in-hand with setting goals and planning. A junior member of the faculty can take a leadership role in curricular reform (I volunteered to completely revamp our analytical curriculum as an Assistant Professor—what was I thinking?), as a research proposal panelist or peer reviewer, or perhaps a session leader at a professional meeting. Post-tenure is good time to think about departmental or program leadership, or mentoring young faculty. As one gains experience, it is possible to think about national leadership roles.

Don’t be a problem-finder, be a problem-solver; there are far too many of the former and not enough of the latter.

I have been very fortunate to have wonderfully supportive colleagues who have been willing to tolerate my crazy ideas, give me freedom to experiment, or to “throw me under the bus”—I mean entrust me with an opportunity to lead—at various junctures of my career. I have never regretted serving as the institutional coordinator of undergraduate research, department chair, or serving on the Council, Executive Board or as President of CUR. These have all been immensely rewarding opportunities to learn more about various aspects of undergraduate research and higher education, while earning a chance to have a lasting impact at the institutional level and enable others to excel.

A junior member of the faculty can take a leadership role in curricular reform…Post-tenure is good time to think about departmental or program leadership, or mentoring young faculty. As one gains experience, it is possible to think about national leadership roles…”

The lesson here is to accept leadership posts throughout your career, especially in areas where you have an interest and can have a clear impact. Don’t be a problem-finder, be a problem-solver; there are far too many of the former and not enough of the latter.

Make research a priority

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”—Stephen Covey

There is always time for the things that are most important to you. Research should be one of those things, especially research with undergraduates. It is all too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind of teaching classes, preparing assignments or activities, grading papers, serving on campus committees, etc., especially at a predominantly undergraduate institution. Often research is the thing that goes when responsibilities mount. Don’t be that faculty member. Your role as an expert professional and teacher in your field is critically tied to your research role. It is research that keeps you informed of the latest technology, understanding, and theory in your field of inquiry. Certainly, in my field, biochemistry, if you are not doing research, you are not privy to the latest thinking in your field. Don’t fool yourself: all the reading of books, monographs, and papers in the world can’t provide you with the erudition and insider knowledge that can be attained only through research and collaboration. And if you are not exposing your student’s research with you to critical evaluation through peer-reviewed publication, you are denying your students one of the most valuable learning experiences in research, namely how to formulate and defend convincing arguments for discovery among real scientific peers.

There is always time for the things that are most important to you. Research should be one of those things… Often research is the thing that goes when responsibilities mount. Don’t be that faculty member.

Get outside your institutional bubble

It’s important to get outside of your institutional bubble. Prioritizing research means that you may have to decide that there is a limited amount of time you can devote to teaching courses or committee work. At most institutions, and certainly at Colgate, there are significant expectations for scholarly productivity. So make time for it—you will have to recognize that there are limits on the time you can spend on other educational activities. So be it. It is important to be a scholar as well as a teacher.

“…if you are not exposing your student’s research with you to critical evaluation through peer-reviewed publication, you are denying your students one of the most valuable learning experiences in research, namely how to formulate and defend convincing arguments for discovery among real scientific peers…”

A Student Reflects…

Peter Gareiss – Undergraduate researcher:

Prof. Rowlett is an excellent example of an educator able to engage undergraduates in chemistry and biochemistry, and to create a connection between the subject matter and student’s lives and interests.  For example, Roger led an Instrumental Analysis chemistry course and lab, a subject that could be dry, but implemented relevant, interesting, and fun examples.  A few of my favorites included collecting and analyzing emissions from our vehicle exhaust, capsaicin levels in peppers, or contaminants in drinking water.  In addition to coursework, Roger played many roles in the development of student’s scientific interests and resulting careers.  As my undergraduate advisor, he mentored studies into the enzymatic mechanism and structure of carbonic anhydrase.  He also led our off campus study semester group to the National Institutes of Health, where we were exposed to cutting edge biomedical research.  Roger’s enthusiasm and passion for teaching and sharing the progress of his research remain lasting impressions of my time studying in the Rowlett Lab and being a student in his courses. Peter Gareiss, Ph.D. Yale Center for Molecular Discovery, Yale University


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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.