Beyond beakers & books

Undergraduates at Mills gain valuable experience by engaging in high-level scholarship, from assisting in original laboratory research to presenting their own work at academic conferences.

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By Kate Rix

Sierra Filucci ’99 learned one of the most valuable lessons of her undergraduate career on a plane, traveling to a conference with a handful of other students and Associate Professor of English Kirsten Saxton.

“Kirsten told us how she would prepare for conferences—she would often be rewriting her paper on the way,” Filucci remembers. “That shocked me. My experience was that I developed my ideas, turned in my papers, and the teacher gave me a grade. What she showed us was that you could keep developing your ideas. It changed the way I look at writing.”

Filucci, who now works as a senior editor at Common Sense Media, didn’t just listen to other academics discuss their work, but she sat right next to them as one speaker on a panel of Mills students.

“I didn’t realize at the time how unusual it was for undergrads to attend conferences,” she says. “Kirsten kept that secret, maybe to make us feel less intimidated. Her encouragement to present at the conference really made me feel like she valued our work.”

In the sciences, too, Mills faculty members set a higher standard of learning. Seniors Susan Citrak and Nelius Gathondu are working for Assistant Professor of Chemistry Beth Kochly, running experiments and trouble-shooting the lab setup as needed.

“When things don’t work, we bounce ideas off of each other and then confirm our ideas with Dr. Kochly,” Citrak says. “It’s an amazing experience and absolutely confirms that I want to pursue a career in scientific research.”

Saxton and Kochly are among the many Mills faculty who integrate undergraduates into “higher level” scholarly pursuits, including presenting at conferences, assisting with original research, and co-authoring journal articles. Students from the humanities to the natural sciences have the opportunity to work side-byside with professors and get a taste of academic life outside the classroom.

“This is the purest form of mentoring,” says Cynthia Scheinberg, chair of the English Department and dean of Graduate Literary Studies. “Student writing goes to a new level when students understand that the purpose of their work can be greater than just turning a paper in for a class. For undergraduates, these opportunities are an extraordinary opening into their fields.”

Nelius Gathondu, Susan Citrak, and Beth Kochly. Photo by Dana Davis.

Appreciating the unpredictable

Beth Kochly teaches organic chemistry, a cornerstone course for chemistry, biology, and environmental science majors. She connects her teaching and research in a way that offers big benefits for her students and also sees mentoring student laboratory assistants as a big part of her job. Typically, she hires two students to work with her over the summer and on through the school year.

“At first, I’m standing right behind them in lab, but after a while I leave them alone,” she says. “Sometimes I realize that they’ve encountered a problem while I was gone—but they’ve figured it out themselves or worked around it.”

In other words, these undergraduate chemistry majors get to experience the volatile world of research for themselves.

“They get excited when what’s happening is going the way we predicted,” Kochly says of her lab assistants, “but they get even more excited when it’s not going as predicted.”

Gathondu notes the balance of support and freedom Kochly provides in the lab. “From week one, Professor Kochly was there for us,” she says. “She lets you make mistakes and come up with your own ideas, and if there’s something wrong with reaction she’ll listen.”

Kochly and her students are investigating reactions involving ionic liquids. Essentially salts that are liquid at room temperature, ionic liquids are viscous, non-volatile solvents that can be substituted for more volatile solvents that are typically used. Her research looks at the effects of these “green” solvents in well known chemical reactions, so that industrial and commercial labs can begin to use ionic liquids with an understanding of how they may behave differently.

Kochly recently submitted a paper, coauthored with former students Todd Rabkin-Golden, post-bac pre-med ’11, and Seham Afaghani ’11 based on research conducted at Mills in 2010, for publication in The Journal of Organic Chemistry.

Gathondu and Citrak worked over the summer to replicate the results of the 2010 research. Together, they spent days in the lab watching over reactions that took hours to complete, learning firsthand that the day-to-day experience of lab work requires boundless patience. But the unusual nature of the work set it apart from typical, and typically predictable, course labs.  

“One day we were all excited to look at the reaction and it was just a flat line,” says Citrak. “We had been so excited and hyped up. We came back fresh on Monday and had a new insight on why it didn’t work. That was an accomplishment in itself. Having gone through that, when I have a question now, I’m going to see if I can answer it on my own.”

Citrak and Gathondu gained further experience when they presented findings from their research at the “Points of Pride” academic seminars during Reunion in September—just as they would at a professional conference.

“As one of her students said at Reunion, there is nothing like the thrill of being the first person to figure out new scientific results,” says Mills Provost Sandra Greer, who is a chemist herself. “Beth Kochly is a model of how we hope our Mills science faculty members can operate, maintaining a program of highquality, publishable research and involving our students in that research.”

Gathondu agrees. “I actually did research and got results— that’s an opportunity that most undergraduates don’t get,” she says. “I did something that’s novel; to me that’s incredible.”

The art of self-defense

Kirsten Saxton. Photo by Dana Davis.

Being left alone in the lab in charge of an experiment, with the professor just downstairs, helps build self-reliance and resourcefulness for student researchers. Likewise in the humanities, presenting original research, with the support of a seasoned veteran, can boost a student scholar’s confidence, both personally and intellectually.

Kirsten Saxton guides her students of 18th-century literature through situations in which their own ideas are tested and refined in the crucible of scholarly symposia. Over the past decade, Saxton’s students have been participating in several academic meetings, including the biannual conferences of the Aphra Behn Society. (Named for one of the first English professional female writers, the society advances research on gender issues and women’s role in the arts of early modern culture.)

“I was teaching the scandalous novel Fanny Hill and found much of the work my students were producing to be as exciting—or more so—than some of what was presented at national conferences,” Saxton says. “I thought, ‘Their work needs to be part of the discourse.’”

“Anybody who wants to present work can try,” says Saxton, who joined the English Department in 1996. Students interested in attending a conference meet as a group to bounce article ideas and titles off of each other. Saxton coaches them on presentation skills such as engaging their listeners with plenty of eye contact and learning to defend their work.

“This breaks down that false binary between school and the world. I tell my students, ‘You need to take yourselves seriously,’” she says. “They’re standing up there and people can ask whatever questions they want. They have to be prepared to handle different points of view.”

The experience has higher stakes than ordinary class assignments and offers potentially higher rewards. For many, the experience is life changing.

Elizabeth Mathews, MFA ’09, took feedback from the audience after presenting a paper on Behn’s short story The History of the Nun in 2009. “The professors who came to our panel were very kind,” Mathews recalls. “But none of them agreed with my perspective. I remember one of them saying, ‘That was really interesting, and I totally disagree with you.’” Mathews was not unprepared for the critique and, in fact, used it to her advantage. She expanded and refined the paper and eventually used it as her graduate school application essay. Today, she is in her second year of doctoral studies at UC Irvine.

“Going to the conference made this scholarly world real for me in a way that it wasn’t before,” Mathews says. “College students have the idea that what happens in class has very little bearing on the real world. Actually being able to share ideas outside of the classroom and have specialists engage with those ideas was a first for me.”

Passing it on

Boosting student research is an approach that Saxton picked up from her mother, Ruth Saxton, a professor on the Mills English faculty since 1974. While teaching the graduate course Theories and Strategies of Teaching Writing, Ruth Saxton began organizing conferences on the Mills campus where students presented their own final papers to an audience of writing faculty from nearby colleges.

“The ‘conference’ concept was wedded to the idea of demystifying what professional life is,” Ruth Saxton says. “By presenting for an audience of people who might be in a position to hire them or write a letter of recommendation, they did a much better job than just giving a report in class. There was no way of getting out of it,” she adds. “It terrified some of them, but I can’t remember a bad presentation.”

The idea came from observing her then-teenage daughter’s shifting attitudes about soccer: on the way to practice, she and her teammates claimed not to care much about winning. At games, where there was an audience, they played better.

Lilly-Marie Lamar ’06, who is now working towards a PhD in higher education administration, remembers feeling nervous before her presentation for Ruth Saxton’s class, but acknowledges the positive effect of the pressure.

“I got connected to the course material on a level unlike anything else,” she recalls. “The conferences felt like piano recitals, where everybody you know is there.”

Lamar is now able to pass that tangible experience on to her own students. While teaching English to graduate students in Poland, she arranged a conference where her students presented their own work. “It was all inspired by what Ruth Saxton did,” she says.

Emma Bufton. Photo by Allisun Novak.

Similarly, Emma Bufton, MFA ’07, now applies the lessons she gained through her experience attending the Aphra Behn conference with Kirsten Saxton in 2007.

“I wouldn’t have gone to that conference if Kirsten hadn’t been there to support me through it,” Bufton says. “The experience made it clear to me that teaching is not just an academic role. It involves attending to the whole person. Real life crosses over into academic life.”

Now in her third year of doctoral work in English at UC Berkeley, Bufton says that her experience at Mills comes back to her again and again as she leads undergraduate courses of her own. “I learned from Mills that taking an interest in a student’s personal life, without compromising academic expectations, is part of being a mentor.”

Whether they’re practicing their skills at a lab bench or behind a podium, the women participating in these higher-level academic pursuits get a glimpse of professional scholarly life, prepare themselves to take on serious challenges, gain a willingness to take chances, and begin to appreciate the value of their own ideas and skills. Some might even say that this is what liberal arts education is all about.

A sampling of scholarship

Mills professors, accomplished researchers in their own right, extend unique opportunities for their undergraduate students to engage in scholarly pursuits at a level usually reserved for more advanced degree candidates. Some recent representative projects include:

  • Last April, seven Mills students presented papers at the Phi Alpha Theta regional conference in Santa Clara under the guidance of Professor of History Bert Gordon. Gordon has been faculty advisor to the Mills College chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the national history honor society, since 2004.
  • Stephanie Summers ’11 prepared a poster presentation for a neuroscience conference about her work investigating memory and learning in the soil roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans. She was mentored by Associate Professor of Biology Jared Young, who opted to teach at Mills specifically so he could work closely with his students.
  • This year, students working with Kristina Faul, associate professor of geochemistry and environmental geology, are presenting work at the national meeting of the Geological Society of America, as well as at the American Geophysical Union, an international conference.
  • Associate Professor of Psychology Christie Chung, profiled in the summer 2012 Mills Quarterly, published an article in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development with co-author Ziyoung Lin ’12. Her students working in the Mills Cognition Lab have contributed to other published papers. In addition, under Chung’s guidance, Frishta Sharifi ’08 conducted field interviews with subjects in Afghanistan.
  • Stephanie Hanor, director of the Mills College Art Museum, is leading students in a project to produce digital images of the museum’s collection. The students are also blogging about their experience with the process; read more about this undertaking in the spring 2013 Quarterly.