When you take science classes at Grinnell, research is part of the learning experience from your very first course.

Biology 150, an introductory course, “gives students an authentic, accurate experience in what it’s like to do research,” says Clark Lindgren, professor of biology and Patricia A. Johnson Professor of Neuroscience.

Students aren’t simply learning the specific steps for conducting research, Lindgren says. They identify the questions they want to address and try to find answers to them the way scientists do. “They design experiments, do experiments, and write it up,” he says.

One sign of student success, Lindgren says, “is when the research project becomes their own. They get committed to finding the answer.” He says that most students get to that point, whether they end up majoring in science or not.

Think Like a Scientist

Mike Fitzpatrick ’16 appreciated the laboratory component of Bio 150. “Doing experiments, finding more information. I liked the questions I could ask and the answers I could get,” he says.

As the bio chem major delves deeper into his science courses, he’s enjoying the lab work. “It’s not so clear cut,” Fitzpatrick says. “There are more subtleties to sink my teeth into.”

In addition to his courses, Fitzpatrick is working on a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) that involves extensive laboratory research. “There are so many thing to think about with experiments,” Fitzpatrick says. “It’s fun to learn from them and move on. I’ve learned from each failed experiment.”

With Lindgren’s guidance, Fitzpatrick is studying lizards’ neuromuscular junctions, specifically glial cells, in order to see how they function. Humans have glial cells too, which is one reason lizards make good model organisms. “Ideally, I want to study glial cells in the human brain,” Fitzpatrick says.

Although he came to Grinnell with the idea of becoming a doctor, conducting research has confirmed for Fitzpatrick that he wants a career in research. He intends to pursue an MD/PhD program. 

“I help students who want to go into science get there,” Lindgren says. He’s studied chemical synapses for several years and won a National Institutes of Health grant in 2014 to continue his work.

“Some students who do independent research projects are still exploring,” Lindgren says. “Some discover that yes, they like research, and some learn that no, they really don’t. I think both are excellent outcomes. The earlier you can discover what your interests and aptitudes are, the better off you are.”

Blend Science with Art

Erica Kwiatkowski ’15 uses images from her research to inspire dance choreographyErica Kwiatkowski ’15 has said yes to research over and over. She plans to pursue an MD/PhD program in the fall. Currently in her last semester at Grinnell, Kwiatkowski is working with Lindgren and Celeste Miller, assistant professor of theatre and dance, on a MAP that’s exploring how science and medicine can inform and inspire dance.

Like Fitzpatrick’s, Kwiatkowski’s research with Lindgren is about neuromuscular junctions — but in mice rather than lizards. Kwiatkowski is researching how their endocannabinoid receptors signal hunger and satiation. She likes this practical question.

“The endocannabinoid system still has places that need explained,” she says. “I’d love to be part of finding an answer.”

At Grinnell, she says, she’s able to be self-directed. “What keeps me interested is that I can ask questions and find answers with my hands, using incredible tools to see and figure out things.”

She’s using images from the neuroscience part of her MAP in the dance part of it. She shows the “visually beautiful” images to a group of fellow Grinnell College dance students. They use the images to generate movement ideas that Erica will then use to create the  choreography.

“With dancing and merging it with science, it’s given me a much better appreciation of how the arts and sciences can come together and create something really important,” Kwiatkowski says.

Mike Fitzpatrick ’16 is a biological chemistry major from Lakewood, Ill. Erica Kwiatkowski ’15, also a biological chemistry major, is from Weston, Mass.

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