When it came to science research, it always seemed that bigger was always better. It was with that sort of mentality that I applied to around fifteen universities my senior year of high school: all large-research universities except for one small, liberal arts college. Through some way or another, I decided on the unconventional: Wellesley. Maybe it was the “you can only do Wellesley once” mentality or the daffodil field by Stone-Davis Hall that got me, but surely, in retrospect, it was the environment. Though not impervious to occasional pangs of doubts, I was compelled by Wellesley. However, as graduate schools and my last year of research come around the corner, I wonder if Wellesley is the “right choice” for students pursuing careers in science. We’re not always cutting-edge nor are our instruments state-of-the-art. We don’t offer a notable diversity of research topics on-campus, and we can’t always meet student demand of resume builders. Moreover, in applications, students and parents tend to prefer universities over LACs (liberal arts colleges.) Despite this, I am going to make the argument that Wellesley is an excellent choice, but that we can do better. Admittedly, I don’t have a control (i.e. an university education,) but I do have several hundred words.
At Wellesley, undergraduate science is defined by three characteristics: environment, quality and productivity. Wellesley science is personal. Classes are small, and so are the associated laboratory sessions; this intimacy allows opportunities to be more integrative and imaginative. Furthermore, they are not taught by TAs; even the greatest skeptic can agree that the college professor is more experienced than the typical graduate TA. The leadership of a professor in turn offers flexibility, as TAs are beholden to the absent professor’s instructions. Moreover, scientific research, surprisingly, is not limited by the confines of the Science Center. Nonscience courses exercise the development of critical thinking skills and written and oral communication. In this way, Wellesley is much like a cross-fit program: we work all parts of our brains. In turn, the interdisciplinary is reflected in our science classes: from grant proposal writing to in-class presentations to points docked off in lab reports for grammatical errors. Synergy across scientific disciplines is one of Wellesley’s selling points, and the college has the evidence to back it up. Age-old approaches of academic siloing are counterintuitive in tackling today’s problems; for example, the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was not awarded to a traditional chemist, but to three scientists with interdisciplinary trainings.
The quality of liberal arts science at Wellesley is also notable. If you compare the courses and content offered to undergraduates, it doesn’t vary much. The names are the same, but the manner of teaching is not. Assuredly, small liberal arts colleges have smaller classes and higher professor-to-student ratios. Just as at universities, liberal arts professors are also expected to have active, publishable research; however, they are more accessible and interactive. Research isn’t the priority — teaching is. However, although this is a positive quality of LACs, it’s also a drawback. Because university professors prioritize their research, they are often at the leading edge of the field and with that, bring a lot of buzz to their classrooms. Moreover, the hypothesis that research universities would have higher quality research than LACs is also fair, as they have more money, better equipment and leading faculty. Surprisingly, not much shows that undergraduates at universities do better research. One reason could be that much of the resources and investment of time and effort are directed to graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and technical staff.
The greater investment of these resources at undergraduate levels can compensate for and balance the university advantage of superior resources — except in a few cases when the undergraduate resources require state-of-the-art resources. At Wellesley, the undergraduates are the center of attention. This sort of incubation engenders self-assurance and morale, and allows for earlier participation in meaningful projects. One can argue that this bubble filters out the real and cutthroat research world. To counter, premature exposure can be discouraging, but even so, through successful UROPs/NSF/REU (i.e. off-campus grants,) that reality is only a bus ride away.
In regards to productivity, liberals art colleges tend to be more productive than the average institution when it comes to training eventual Ph.D.’s in the sciences — with one caveat: these colleges typically do not have engineering programs and therefore do not produce as many degree-seeking graduates. On the other hand, science at Wellesley is successful because of its personal approach and dedicated faculty. This success is embodied in Wellesley’s history; we were second only to MIT in establishing an undergraduate physics lab. It’s also embedded in our current trends: 80 percent of Wellesley students attend graduate or professional schools within ten years.
On balance, I am assuming graduate degrees are a necessary and a good thing. While I won’t be part of that statistic, I can say that I do value my science and research experience at Wellesley, and that the skills and experience I’ve gained researching at Wellesley will be helpful outside of a doctoral program. Wellesley, however, can make substantial improvements when considering future directions. Increasingly, our world is becoming more technology driven. To answer that trend, students, particularly in the sciences, should have more experience with coding and computer science. Students, arguably from all disciplines, should be encouraged to avail themselves of engineering opportunities; even if they choose not to take a course dedicated to the discipline, professors across disciplines can collaborate on lectures or projects that incorporate such principles.
In addition, we should work to our own strengths as well: the liberal arts. By having more science classes that integrate humanities and social sciences we can speak to that strength. Likewise, by diversifying first-year and upper-level seminars, science at Wellesley can cater to the diversity of its students: attracting students who might avoid science because of high school experiences while accommodating the interests of majoring students. When it comes to science, thinking small isn’t a bad thing. Wellesley is not a large research university science; neither should it try to become like one. Thinking liberally, interdisciplinary and small provides more benefits than you or I would have predicted.