The Liberal Arts—And Sciences

By Martha Hunter Shepard ’66


Photo: Liberal Arts Science
Mary Miller and Tyler Cullender ’08

Would you believe—current Rhodes chemistry students doing the science for an explosives detection apparatus that could sniff out an improvised explosive device (IED) at 1,000 meters and explode it before it hurt anyone? Or physics students researching the wearing process of materials used in hip and knee replacement? Or a biology student spending a summer internship asking for—and receiving—organ donations from bereaved families? Quite impressive for science majors at a small liberal arts college, but that’s Rhodes tradition.

Consider professor emeritus of physics Jack Taylor ’44, who in the 1960s delighted in whisking students thousands of miles away to observe solar eclipses in the near infrared. Current physics professor Brent Hoffmeister, the Van Vleet Fellow in Physics, says it was Taylor’s example that inspired him to lead his students in their successful 2006 microgravity experiment that took them several miles straight up—and down—on a NASA “weightless wonder” aircraft. And those are just the physics students.

Rhodes offers majors in five natural sciences: biology, biochemistry and molecular biology, chemistryneuroscience and physics. Science majors comprise 20 percent of the students who have declared their majors. Like all Rhodes students, at the end of four years they’re prepared to do anything.

It’s normal for science majors to do research along with a professor in his/her lab, then jointly present their findings at national conferences and publish them in peer-reviewed journals. So are research opportunities and internships at major research institutions such as Memphis’ St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center as well as at research institutions throughout the country. Some science majors take advantage of study abroad programs in their field.

They are community-minded as well. Outside the lab many volunteer to work with elementary, middle and high school students in Rhodes’ Learning Corridor. Those who do research in developing countries become painfully aware of the local citizens’ living conditions and vow to do something about it in their future careers.

As for those careers, some choose to venture outside the sciences, into law, for example, following the bliss learned in history and philosophy courses taken along with their science classes. On the other hand, some humanities majors go into the medical professions or postgraduate work in the sciences. Most science majors, though, stay in the field as teachers, researchers, health professionals. Rhodes science faculty advise them about graduate schools, and with Career Services, put them in touch with undergraduate internships.

For students from any major who are interested in the health professions, Alan Jaslow, associate professor of biology, is director of health professions advising, a comprehensive program in which he works with faculty, student services offices, community partners and alumni to counsel students interested in all health professions and veterinary medicine about their career options. Though medicine has been the most common health career sought by Rhodes students, many have gone on to study pharmacy, physical therapy, dentistry, veterinary medicine, optometry, or become nurse practitioners or physicians’ assistants, or enter the fields of health administration or clinical psychology.

One thing science majors—and all Rhodes graduates—have in common is a lifelong understanding of the liberal arts and sciences. Add to that the knowledge and resources to make a difference in the world.

The interdisciplinary approach

Rhodes students have options—from the curriculum they study to career choices. Science majors are not immune to experiencing some degree of cross-pollination in their disciplines, also known as the interdisciplinary approach to teaching.

For example, it sometimes happens that Rhodes faculty and students from mathematics will lend their expertise to a chemistry research project. Or that chemistry, physics and biology majors will end up on the same research team.

“In a place like Rhodes where we’re all next door to each other, we interact even if we’re not working on the same project. We don’t team-teach all our courses, but we’re all drawing on each others’ perspectives,” explains Biology Department chair Gary Lindquester.

That interdisciplinary approach, he says, “is second nature,” which made it relatively easy for Rhodes to add two majors to the science curriculum in recent years—biochemistry and molecular biology (BMB) and neuroscience.

“The BMB program, now in its third year, is interdisciplinary because we wanted to give students a choice,” says chemistry professor Darlene Loprete, department chair, and James H. Daughrill Professor of the Natural Sciences. “It allows us to focus more on the molecular part of biology. Students who want to go into the health professions or do biochemistry or genetics in graduate school can major in BMB. There’s flexibility for all kinds of students.”

Neuroscience, which began in the 2006-07 academic year, formalizes the previous bridge major between biology and psychology, says psychology professor and dean of curriculum Robert Strandburg.

“There’s been an interest in this area for a long time. The problem was that we really didn’t have the faculty infrastructure to support a department. Now we have three neuroscientists, plus a collaborative relationship with St. Jude and UT Memphis to provide research opportunities for the students.”

Strandburg describes all current science as “multidisciplinary.”

“The cross-fertilization from the behavioral end to the genetic end is what makes contemporary neuroscience so exciting.”

Keeping these teaching-learning options open is another matter. In December 2006, three faculty submitted a grant proposal for faculty-student collaborative research to the National Science Foundation: biology professor Terry Hill, who holds the James T. and Valeria B. Robertson Chair in Biological Sciences; chemistry professor Darlene Loprete; and assistant professor of chemistry Loretta Jackson-Hayes. It was one of 220 proposals, of which the NSF funded only 22. Theirs was not one.

“Grants are drying up,” says Loprete, a past recipient of significant NSF funding.

The grant situation also worries the Biology Department, which sorely needs major laboratory renovations. Faculty envision creating new teaching spaces that would blend lecture rooms and labs, which traditionally have been separate entities. The department is pinning its hopes on a grant proposal to create one model teaching lab, but the funding won’t be announced till spring. It could go either way.

“A teaching lab would allow us to conduct a course in a common environment and facilitate more collaborative, investigational work,” says department chair Gary Lindquester.

He also emphasizes a priority of all faculty—maintaining student research fellowships and creating new ones to include more students, students who could learn and do research with faculty in vastly improved facilities.

Making It Better

In assistant professor of chemistry Mauricio Cafiero’s lab, biology major Karina Van Sickle ’08 and chemistry major Laura Hofto ’10 have worked on several projects, including a project modeling how large biological molecules help smaller ones wedge their way into DNA.

“Both carcinogens and chemotherapeutic drugs work that way,” explains Cafiero.

Hofto then took over a project her sister Meghan ’07 had begun, looking at how small molecules bind to neurologically important enzymes and how mutations in those enzymes can affect that binding and in turn lead to such conditions as Parkinson’s disease and obsessive-compulsive and bipolar disorders.

Then they decided they needed methods that could work faster and more accurately. Hofto went to work. Her first manuscript on that work was published in the International Journal of Quantum Chemistry. In fall 2007, she presented further research at the Computational Life Sciences Conference in Utrecht, Netherlands. After she spoke, Hofto and Cafiero fielded a multitude of questions from the audience of scientists all wanting to know how the findings could be applied to other diseases.

This summer, Hofto will do research in computational chemistry at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, one of the UK’s leading research institutions. Van Sickle plans to pursue a graduate degree in one of the many health fields open to her.

“I’m strongly considering dentistry now,” she says. “But I have so many options, I’m having a hard time deciding what to do.”


Biology major Tyler Cullender ’08 found options when he transferred to Rhodes from a large southwestern state research university midway through his sophomore year. Passionate about environmental science, he worked with faculty in the ecology labs. He did a REU—research experience for undergraduates—in a summer program through the University of Notre Dame, investigating the massive problem of invasive species in the Great Lakes. He took biology professor David Kesler’s coral reef ecology course, traveling with the group to Roatán Island off the coast of Honduras for two weeks.

Then his earth shifted. His original ecology professor, who had finished a two-year fellowship at Rhodes, took an appointment at another college. The professor, along with other faculty, advised Cullender to give molecular biology a try. Cullender listened, and did so. 

“The techniques in molecular biology seem to be rapidly progressing now, and they’re actually using those mechanisms and applying them to answering ecological questions,” Cullender explains. “It’s very beneficial for me to get that under my belt, because eventually I’d like to combine the two fields in grad school and a career.”

He sees himself in the biotech industry or in government programs that fund bioremediation, using organisms to help extract toxins or heavy metals from contaminated soil.

He says he “kind of fell into” associate professor of biology Mary Miller’s lab.

“It was a big shift for me, learning the new techniques, how to observe things indirectly either under the microscope or through assays that involve antibodies or molecular probes,” he explains. “Yeast is used as a model system in the Miller Lab. We investigate the way cells divide and the proteins that are important for that division to occur. Having a dual background in environmental science and molecular biology has really helped me.”

Rhodes was Cullender’s first choice when he was applying to colleges. He says, “The state university was free, and Rhodes wasn’t. But research opportunities there were reserved for grad students. So, I thought I’d rather be a little poorer and get a good education at Rhodes where I could explore my options.”


Physics major Justin Hugon ’09 is one of several students who work in associate professor of physics Ann Viano’s lab, where research is all about the human body’s interaction with man-made materials used in joint replacement. They investigate the wear of polyethylene (which comprises the plastic components in some artificial joints) and subsequent release of  polyethylene particles into the body. Viano’s students also study corrosion of implant alloys caused by cells adhering to an alloy once implanted in the body.

Hugon has studied the size distribution of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene particles and optimized a technique to visualize the smallest of them—those in the nanometer range—using transmission electron microscopy. These particles are potentially the most biologically reactive due to their small size and represent a major reason for joint implant failure.

A Safer World

Chemistry Department Jon Russ has an annual $100,000 grant from the Department of Defense to develop improved ways to detect explosives like TNT in an improvised explosive device (IED) so that it can be destroyed before it detonates. It’s called a standoff hazardous agent detection system (SHADES). Aiding him in his research are physics faculty Brent Hoffmeister and Shubho Banerjee along with four chemistry majors and one physics major.

In their lab on the fourth floor of Kennedy Hall, the students work with some extraordinary—and costly—equipment. They experiment with different versions of a solid phase micro-extractor (SPME), a polymer-coated filament a couple of inches long and no larger than a human hair, to detect and extract DNT vapors (accessible and less powerful than TNT) from a wind tunnel. From that, they can project DNT findings to TNT. Each SPEME costs $100.

They work with the physics folks on theory, then collect the data. Other partners in the project are colleagues at Arkansas State University and a technology engineering company in Huntsville, AL, which will manufacture a device based on the science done at Rhodes.

The group plans to present the findings at the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy in New Orleans over spring break. Publication is down the road, says Russ.

Surrounded by the Best

Biochemistry and molecular biology major Nici Thomas ’08 participated in the St. Jude Summer Plus Program, a partnership of Rhodes and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, in which a student can devote one to two summers as a paid intern plus two semesters for academic credit working in a research lab at St. Jude.

Thomas, who worked in a radiology department lab there, says she “learned a lot about clinical work and research. I worked on three different projects—how delayed maturation affects bone density in children who survived acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), analyzing bone density in children who survived brain tumors using new computer software and studying the prevalence of kidney stones in children who survived ALL.”

Thomas says the strength of Rhodes’ science departments attracted her to Rhodes.

Biology major Kim Green ’09 also participated in the St. Jude Summer Plus program, determining the function of a protein in the viral infection of the Epstein-Barr virus. Her project grew out of a collaboration between a St. Jude biochemist and Rhodes biology professor Gary Lindquester, now sponsored by Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty.

“The faculty at St. Jude is the absolute best at what they do,” she says. “Being surrounded by the best is inspiring, especially when you never lose sight of what you are working for—the children who are right next door, the ones who are eating in the same cafeteria as you, the ones you see every day.”

Brain Surgery

“I don’t know many other people who have performed brain surgery alone by the age of 20, albeit on a rat,” says neuroscience major Joel Chasan ’09 of his research with a pharmacology professor at the University of Tennessee-Memphis Medical School.

He examines the effects of nicotine on brain chemistry.

“I work with a unique rat model, and I can perform all the work from before the rats are born until they are producing the data that eventually will be published in a journal,” he says.

Chasan says part of the reason he chose Rhodes was that “my predisposition toward biology and my interest in psychology merged well in neuroscience, and I greatly enjoy studying the brain and nervous system.”

It’s a difficult but rewarding major, he says, yet it has allowed him to take a broad range of courses in the liberal arts curriculum.

“I Held a Heart”

Biology major/sociology minor Britt Merritt ’08 had a summer internship last year through the Nashville-based Dialysis Clinic Inc. She first worked at Camp Okawehna, a summer camp located in middle Tennessee for children with renal disease, before her internship moved her to Knoxville, where for the rest of the summer she worked for an organ procurement organization (OPO). There, she worked in a hospital with a team from Tennessee Donor Services soliciting organ donations from families who had suddenly lost loved ones.

“I would talk to the families, then present for organ donation, then monitor the donation as it went to a recipient. Only one family refused to donate,” she says.

The medical staff took her under their wings, inviting her into the OR for transplant surgery. She wore a badge that said “intern” on it.

“I would scrub and go in for surgery. Heart teams and lung teams would come in. I even got to hold a heart in my hand,” says Merritt. “Some days, I worked at the UT Medical Center there, watching different surgeries from 7 in the morning till midnight.

“People ask me what I did last summer, and I say, ‘I held a heart.’

Merritt says she wants to go into public health. The inspiration came while studying abroad first semester her junior year. Through The School for Field Studies, she took the marine resources management studies option at a remote fishing village in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Far from a resort, students bathed and washed clothes in the ocean and lived in an un-air conditioned hotel built for now-nonexistent drug smugglers in the 1970s.

“The students there were all about ecology, conservation, the environment,” Merritt says. “But as I saw how the people there live, I thought I’d rather save people than fish.”

What They’ve Done with Their Rhodes Degrees

Rhodes alums make a difference in the world. In the health professions, research and academe, science majors daily affect our lives. Some examples:

Physics major Harry Swinney ’61, director of the Center for Nonlinear Dynamics at the University of Texas at Austin, and a pioneer in chaos theory, the idea that systems—no matter how complex—rely on an underlying order, and that very simple or small systems and events can cause complex behaviors or events

Joe Ajello ’62, also a physics major, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech who’s worked on numerous projects, including the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Hubble Telescope

Charles Robertson ’65, physics, Nanodrop Technologies Inc., Wilmington, DE

Chemistry major Joe McCord ’66, professor of microbiology and immunology, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, and a pioneer in antioxident and free radical biology research

Sid Strickland ’68, chemistry, vice president for educational affairs and dean of graduate and postgraduate studies, Rockefeller University

Rick Bostock ’74, biology, professor of plant pathology, University of California, Davis and director, Western Plant Diagnostic Network, part of the national network formed after Sept. 11, 2001, to protect the nation’s food supply from introduced pests and pathogens

Biology major Dayna Miller Darden ’91, microbiology specialist, Sterilization and Microbiological Controls, Smith & Nephew, Memphis

Michael Long ’97, biology/psychology, postdoc, McGovern Institute for Brain Research, MIT

Stanley Vance ’05, chemistry, student, Harvard Medical School

Aaron Creek ’07

In my early days at Rhodes, I knew I would go straight to medical school from my undergraduate studies because, let’s be honest, who would want to take time off and get out of the school mode; might as well stick with it while you’re already plowing along, right?

Well, it’s obvious that my thinking evolved a bit because I’m currently in the Philippines, on a postgraduate fellowship called the Luce Scholarship, volunteering with the Philippine National Red Cross. I’m here for one year working with the community health and disaster management divisions. Last year, there was a horrible landslide in the middle region of the Philippines. Today, I’m assisting with cyclone relief.

I know the experiences I had at Rhodes (classes, internships, research, volunteer work, etc.) made me a good candidate for this fellowship, but beyond that, I don’t think that I would have felt inspired to go after the opportunity if it weren’t for the support and the atmosphere of empowerment that exists at Rhodes College.

Some people feel that going to a liberal arts school means that you have to take courses outside of your major, taking your focus away from what’s most important. But comparing my premedical experience to that of people I know at other schools, I feel that a liberal arts education gave me the freedom to explore other interests and to go after a fellowship that is a little out of the norm for one heading in the medical direction. None of this has gotten in the way of my ultimate goal—when I return from the Philippines I will be attending medical school at the University of Tennessee.

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