Greg Alexander

Opening doors for women in science

Baltimore Sun, November 23, 2008

There are many benefits of attending a small, liberal arts college – small class size, one-on-one interaction with faculty, a litany of interesting and though-provoking courses and an intimate, leafy campus, to name a few. Laboratory science majors at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, however, have a unique opportunity to combine these small school benefits with world-class research work through a new partnership with the school and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, a partnership that also encourages more women to look to the sciences as enticing career paths.

The Sister Alma McNicholas Women Scientists Program – named for the late biology faculty member at College of Notre Dame – began in fall 2007 and is an extension of an informal relationship the two schools formed two years prior. The funding associated with the program allows three College of Notre Dame students per year to become trainees in laboratories at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “It’s an amazing opportunity for students to gain experience in research at such a high level, while still benefiting from the small class size and wonderful education they receive here,” says Peter Hoffman, Ph.D., associate professor of biology and coordinator of program at College of Notre Dame. “Research is such a vital element of education for students in the sciences. Unfortunately, being a small school, we do not have many on-campus research opportunities for students, so the partnership with Hopkins is fantastic.”

Hoffman notes that students apply to him by submitting an application and essay and must have a minimum 3.4 GPA. “Also, they must be majoring in a field relating to biology, and one of the students must be a biology major. All three of the students this year are biology majors, but the program is a perfect fit for any laboratory science major,” he says. Students – who work a maximum of 10 hours a week – do not receive a grade for their work but do receive a stipend each semester, along with the invaluable research experience.

“The program has the added benefit of encouraging more women to pursue careers in the sciences,” says Hoffman, who teaches upper level biology students. “The ability to partner with an all-female, small, Catholic college and provide these research opportunities is great,” concurs Catherine L. Will, manager of student recruitment and programs in the office of graduate student affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Will, who has been at Johns Hopkins for 21 years, says that when she started, approximately 80 percent of graduate students were male, but now the demographics are about 50/50 along gender lines. “The number of women in the sciences has grown tremendously during this time. We want to do our part in encouraging women to pursue graduate work, including the sciences,” she says.

“One of our core values is diversity, and this program allows us to work toward that goal in the sciences, while also continuing our commitment to be actively involved in the Baltimore community,” Will says. “While it’s wonderful to be consistently ranked as the No. 1 hospital in the nation, we must also be good citizens of Baltimore, and this program with the College of Notre Dame is a part of that initiative.”

Will says that through this program, students from Notre Dame are paired with a mentor. “The mentors are what make this program work. I am not a scientist, so finding the right mentors is key for the program. Luckily, I have never had difficulty recruiting mentors.” Will says that students in the program will conduct research work in one of the School of Medicine’s 15 graduate programs, including biomedical engineering, cellular and molecular medicine, cellular and molecular physiology, functional anatomy and evolution, pathobiology and human genetics and molecular biology.

Julia Russell, a senior biology major at the College of Notre Dame, began participating in the program in January. “Dr. Hoffman recommended it to me, as he thought it was a great opportunity. If I went to school anywhere else in the country than the College of Notre Dame, I would not have had an opportunity like this,” says Russell. “I have been interested in biology since middle school and knew that’s what I wanted to study in college,” says Russell, who plans on attending graduate school in pathology or molecular medicine and hopes to earn her Ph.D. “This program is the perfect training ground for those looking to attend graduate school,” Hoffman adds.

Russell says that she did not have a preference as to which research area she was placed in at Johns Hopkins, but was excited when she was placed in the Retrovirus Laboratory within the department of molecular and comparative pathobiology. “I am working on employing molecular biology techniques with research that focuses on HIV/AIDS. It’s fascinating work,” Russell says.

“The best part of this program,” she continues, “is that I get the chance to work with some of the most intellectual and skilled individuals in medicine. Being able to contribute to the research being done here is an amazing feeling.”

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