Jacqueline Crisman was on her way to research superstardom studying proteases, chemokines, and the cellular hallmarks of inflammatory bowel disease at Pennsylvania State University when in 2004, motivated by her parents' unstable health, she relocated to be closer to them. She took a job at Houghton College, a small liberal arts college in western New York. The move made things easier family-wise, but she wasn't planning to make it permanent. She hoped she would be able to persuade her parents to move to a city where she could help take care of them while continuing to pursue a research career.
"It almost brought me to tears ... the first time the students extracted DNA in the lab, and one turned around and looked at me and said, 'This is really cool!' "-- Jacqueline Crisman
Her parents had other ideas. "I couldn't have gotten them out of here with a keg of dynamite," Crisman says. "So I ended up coming back home."
Home for Crisman is Olean, New York, also home to Jamestown Community College (JCC). In 2008, she found herself on the faculty there. Displaying a stubbornness she says she inherited from her parents, she set about building a biotechnology research program.
She wasn't sure whether her students would be up to the task. Most of them come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and many enter her classroom with serious educational deficits, she says. Also, everyone is either a freshmen or a sophomore -- young even by the standards of undergraduate research. "I was a little bit skeptical, because there's a bias that says that students in their first 2 years can't do research because they don't have the skill base," Crisman says. "But when I really thought about it, I said, 'You know, I did have high school interns when I was at Penn State, and I found them to be successful. So it should be possible to have first- and second-year college students doing research.' "
She set up a lab dedicated to studying the effects of chemokines on cell death and cancer. The course is a requirement for students on the biotech track at JCC, so she has a steady supply of fresh-faced lab assistants.
With grants from various biotech companies, science foundations, and the Department of Education, Crisman was able to bring in some excellent tools. "They're extracting RNA; they're doing RT-PCR [reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction]; we have a thermocycler now; we do fluorescence imaging -- we really have some state-of-the-art equipment."
Back at her top-tier research institution, the excitement and wonder of science was sometimes obscured by routine, she says. Not so at JCC: Working with students having the discovery experience for the first time rekindled her love for science, Crisman says. "It almost brought me to tears ... the first time the students extracted DNA in the lab, and one turned around and looked at me and said, 'This is really cool!' " she says. "I've extracted DNA for so many years and I'd forgotten that, yeah, it really is cool."
Here's how the program works: Students pick a topic and Crisman helps them turn it into a fully formed research project. Students search the literature, develop a hypothesis, test it in the lab, and write it up in a detailed research paper. Some papers are presented at the American Association of Immunologists annual meeting in Boston in May. Four-year colleges have enthusiastically accepted students who have gone through her program and placed them immediately into research labs, she says.
The program's success has caught the attention of some local biotech companies, which are interested in developing collaborative projects. (One of them, Trinity Biotech, also donated equipment.) And the New York Department of Health recently approached her to suggest a project in which students would trap mosquitoes and use DNA-extraction techniques to analyze them for heartworm.
Crisman says she finds it hard to imagine returning to her previous life at a big university -- not as long as she is able, in her current post, to take care of her parents, nurture some of tomorrow's scientists, and carry on with at least a little top-tier research. "I'm having so much fun that I sometimes can't believe it," she says. "It is so gratifying to see the students working in the lab and having fun. I could imagine doing a sabbatical, ... but I don't see myself going back to a research career."
Michael Price is a staff writer at Science Careers.