Josie Bircher ’16 came to Grinnell undecided about what field she was going to pursue. That has turned to inspired certainty, and she credits Grinnell’s individually advised curriculum with helping her chart her course.
A First-Year Tutorial is the only required class at Grinnell. With no general education requirements, students and their advisers have greater flexibility in building majors that serve students’ career and life goals.
“Initially I just continued math because I was pretty good at it in high school and I found it challenging, so I wanted to keep that going,” Bircher says. “The open curriculum gave me the opportunity to explore different fields and individualize my coursework to make me more prepared for the field I want to go into.”
Bircher’s first Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) in computational chemistry “confirmed that I like theoretical, quantitative sort of approaches,” she says. “Chemistry was on a little too small of a scale for me, so it helped to determine where I went next, which was more biochem — lots of chemical interactions combining into one. “
Her current MAP — using mathematical modeling to predict receptor activity in the brain — has further inspired her to look toward graduate school and a career in research.
Integration and Flexibility
“I’m drawing from my work in biochem, as well as the skills I learned in one of my applied math courses and in my probability and statistics course, too,” Bircher says. “That’s been sort of a theme in my coursework, to integrate all of the different things I take into one type of work.”
Bircher also appreciates flexibility in scheduling other activities. She is on Grinnell’s swim team and plays violin in the Grinnell Symphony Orchestra.
“In my first meeting with the swim coach I asked her if it was feasible to do both orchestra and swimming,” Bircher recalls. “She made it clear that she would be able to be in communication with the orchestra director, and that it would be easy for me to do everything I wanted to do in terms of my extracurricular activities.
“Grinnell really seemed like the place where I could do everything I wanted to do,” Bircher says.
In deciding where to attend college, Queenster Nartey ’16 applied and was admitted to several major research universities in the Midwest.
“After visiting all those schools, Grinnell is the only one that clicked,” Nartey says.
The individually advised curriculum was a major incentive for Nartey. “Knowing that there is only one required class, the tutorial, I could basically shape my education however I wanted to,” she says.
“Yes, there are requirements for the major, but not every biochemistry major takes the exact same classes,” Nartey explains. “It’s very personalized. It’s appealing to me to basically wrap my major around things that I’m interested in.”
Nartey had intended to double in Spanish with a concentration in neuroscience, but dropped the idea. “I was pre-med, I wanted to study abroad, and as time went on I realized I didn’t want to spread myself too thin,” she says. “I wanted to focus on one thing and do it really well.”
Ultimately, she was able to take a Spanish class, and she combined her study abroad and neuroscience through the Danish Institute for Study Abroad program. Clinical experience in Copenhagen, along with research opportunities she capitalized on during her first two years, expanded both her medical and research horizons. “I didn’t have to give anything up at all,” she says.
Set Her Apart
Nartey’s current MAP is focused on testing copper surfaces for bacterial growth in hospital environments. Her poster presentation on that study earned her accolades at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle last November.
“From the copper study, we wrote a paper that’s going to be published very soon, Nartey says. “As an undergraduate, having a published paper sets you apart from the crowd. It’s very exciting, and something I can highlight as a result of doing a MAP.”
Nartey says the experience will help her in applying for a National Institutes of Health postbaccalaureate fellowship and eventually for an M.D./Ph.D. program.
“Grinnell opened all these doors,” Nartey says. “Having the freedom to design my major and go abroad, having the encouragement from professors and other students and staff in a collaborative environment, is wonderful.
“I feel very good and very confident as a scientist, and it’s because of this individualized curriculum. It all comes down to that.”
Josie Bircher ’16 is a biological chemistry and mathematics double major from Omaha, Neb. Queenster Nartey ’16, a biological chemistry major, is from Chicago.