Thomas Higgins didn't expect to stay long at Harold Washington College in Chicago, Illinois, where he began teaching biochemistry courses in 1998. "I thought, 'Well, I'll apply for this position and at least I'll get a couple years of teaching experience, and that will round out my resumé and I can stay involved in research because I'll be close to Northwestern,' " Higgins says. "So I really just thought it would be a steppingstone to a more prestigious 4-year liberal arts school."
"During the academic year, our goal with our students is to give them an experience that makes them think like research scientists, makes them find a problem they're interested in, take ownership of it, feel like they're exploring something." -- Thomas Higgins
Thirteen years later, he's yet to take -- or even to attempt -- that next step. The community college atmosphere, he's found, allows him to satisfy his itch to do research occasionally while having an impact on students who might otherwise never consider science as a career path.
When, shortly after his arrival at Harold Washington College, Higgins told the administrators he wanted to start a research program, they were supportive but skeptical, he says. "They basically said, 'No one's going to take you seriously, but go for it anyway.' "
But as he talked with colleagues about his plans, he found that many of them did take him seriously. In fact, they were serious about collaborating with him on research projects of their own. Other 2-year colleges in the Chicago area also expressed interest in starting research programs, and three 4-year colleges and universities -- Hope College, Illinois State University, and Youngstown State University -- offered support.
In 2006, together with about 20 professors -- half chemists, half biologists -- from Harold Washington and 11 other area community colleges, Higgins formed the STEM-ENGINES. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.) STEM-ENGINES is an undergraduate research collaborative with three grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation. The goal of the collaborative is to provide community college students with an undergraduate research experience similar to what's available at more research-intensive colleges and universities.
"During the academic year, our goal with our students is to give them an experience that makes them think like research scientists, makes them find a problem they're interested in, take ownership of it, feel like they're exploring something," Higgins says. Students take on research projects -- for example, teasing out the aquatic toxicity of gold and silver nanoparticles -- do the work, and create posters they present at undergraduate research symposiums in the area. Three of Higgins's students have won prestigious poster awards from the American Chemical Society.
Students also get college credit; the research program appears on student transcripts as "Independent Research in Chemistry," so it's hard to miss for admissions officers at 4-year institutions. Many students have gone on to 4-year colleges to continue studying biochemistry or related fields Higgins judges his own success by whether he has at least one student per year enroll in a 4-year college as a chemistry or biochemistry major.
Many of his students might never have considered becoming scientists before taking his research course. "A lot of them are first-generation [American citizens]," he says. "They don't necessarily speak English as a first language. They're coming into the community college maybe thinking, 'I want to be a nurse,' or 'I want to be a doctor.' They're going for the traditional job areas that are familiar to them. But they're coming out of this academic experience thinking, 'Wow, I could be a molecular biologist. I'm smart enough to get a master's degree; I'm smart enough to get a Ph.D.' "
These days, most of Higgins's publications appear in education journals, but he hopes to devote more time to biochemistry research someday soon, if only to improve his teaching abilities. "I'd like to have an experience away from the community college at some point for a small period of time, maybe 3 or 4 years," he says. "But I think that's because you understand how to prepare your students better when you have that experience. If I do leave the community college, it will only be for a brief time and so I can become a better professor."
Michael Price is a staff writer at Science Careers.