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Big Science at a Small College

Andrea Morris

" Here it is--my baby," says Andrea Morris, opening the door to what until recently was a storage closet. The infant in question, a strapping 90 pounds and no weakling, has fluorescent capabilities and inverted optics. "That means we can really see what’s going on at the bottom of the culture dish."

But the most unusual thing about the new $30,000 microscope is not that it's in a converted closet but that that closet is located not at a large university but at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, a small liberal arts school with an eight-person biology department. Morris bought the microscope with money from a $600,000, 5-year Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, the first award of its kind given to a faculty member at a small college such as Haverford. The 37-year-old developmental neurobiologist will use her new tool to study how developing retinal axons find their way to the right spot in the brains of frog embryos--and she’ll do it without the help of postdocs or graduate students, just undergrads.

Morris won the grant in August on her second try. "The first time, the reviews came back skeptical that the work could be done without graduate students," she says. So she had a fresh crop of Haverford seniors run experiments and reapplied, results in hand. "The reviewers, to a person, were pleasantly surprised that this came from undergraduates."

Choosing projects to fit the tools

One secret to doing science without the resources of a large university is to choose projects carefully and break them down into manageable pieces. "I was looking for something I find fascinating that can be scaled down," says Morris. "Retinal axon guidance fit the bill." She looked for a promising protein to study and an animal model in which to study it. Mice were out. Although some Haverford faculty members do work with them, a mouse lab strains the resources of a small institution, and their embryos are not as accessible as other models’. Some of her colleagues advised her to stick with fruit flies, but Morris settled on Xenopus frogs, whose large, abundant embryos are relatively easy both to dissect and to teach undergraduates to dissect.

For the protein, Morris chose Sonic hedgehog--a signaling protein that plays an important role in many kinds of development--partly because she had studied it during a postdoc and partly because her students were so excited about its prestigious reputation and its silly name (which comes from a video-game character). Working with her students, she designed bite-sized experiments, each a small part of what she was looking for, that the five senior biology majors in her lab could run between classes.

One result is a warm, collaborative laboratory atmosphere, says Matthew Mansh, one of Morris’s seniors. "Andrea treats me like someone who’s intelligent enough to run a laboratory experiment by himself, but she’s always there for questions. She’ll have a long conversation with a former student who’s visiting from med school, or talk to us about our futures, or hang out and discuss TV. She’s your friend, and she cares about you."

The intimacy of her lab does have its downside for Morris, who finds it hard to say no, especially to minority students looking for a mentor. The daughter of immigrants from Jamaica, she’s one of just a few black scientists in Haverford's community. She spends so much time immersed in her work that once when she called her mother to find out how to make a favorite curry dish, she found herself asking for the protocol instead of the recipe. Her start-up money had almost run out before she learned to start passing some of the requests on to other faculty members.

Reaching out to larger institutions

Another secret to doing science at a small college, says Morris, is to build relationships with colleagues at nearby universities. When she came to Haverford as a faculty member, she reached out to neuroscientist Jonathan Raper of the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). "I was hesitant to send this e-mail to this big shot," she says, but he responded warmly and invited her to come work in his lab. When she applied for the career-development grant, he was glad to sign on as her mentor.

For Morris, working with Raper is an opportunity to connect with other scientists doing similar work, to learn new techniques firsthand, and to use equipment not available at Haverford. (Until October, when her own inverted fluorescent microscope arrived, Morris used the one at Penn.) For their part, Raper and his colleagues are intrigued by Morris’s experiments; they’re interested in repeating some of her frog work in their animal model of choice, zebrafish. And Morris brings a new perspective to Raper’s lab. "Some of our students and postdocs are potentially interested in pursuing a career path at a smaller school, and they don’t have that much opportunity to meet with someone who’s done that," he says.

Learning to learn

Morris is a product of a small college herself--Haverford, in fact. She had a hard time in her early science classes there. In the intro courses, her teachers emphasized learning facts rather than discovering theories. "I found the facts so random," she says. "That’s not how I think. I look at the big picture and don’t stop at the first plausible hypothesis." Things started looking up when she got into the lab. "Once I had a context and a story, I never forgot what protein X did again." After graduation, she went to work as a lab technician at Rockefeller University in New York City, where her boss encouraged her to go to graduate school. "He told me, ‘The way you think about things would make you likely to do well and finish.’ "

As a graduate student at Princeton, Morris encountered "a real isolation" in spite of a supportive adviser and lab. She says that with no minority faculty members or graduate students in her program and few women, “the faculty didn’t identify with me as a scientist like themselves. The subjective nature of ‘You remind me of myself when I was a graduate student’ really drives the mentorship and attitudes of graduate advisers, so it was difficult to make that sort of connection without such a shared identification. It was bad enough being a black student, but being a black female--people didn’t expect me to finish."

Learning to teach

She proved them wrong in 1999, becoming the first black woman to earn a Ph.D from the molecular biology program. Next, she went to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, for a postdoc. While she was there, the university got funding from NIH to send postdoc students to teach at small local colleges with high minority enrollment. The purpose was to expose the local college students to active research scientists and to give the researchers experience teaching. Morris taught at Morehouse College, a historically black all-male school in Atlanta. She loved the chance "to open the door to students who haven’t traditionally had that choice," she says. "You’d never know you have the hands for a lab if you don’t have the opportunity to try it. Who knows if you can dissect a teeny, tiny frog embryo with the hands of a superhero?"

That teaching experience stood her in good stead at Haverford. With their emphasis on undergraduate education, small colleges look for experienced teachers when deciding whom to hire, Morris says. Because the schools are small and openings come up rarely, the positions can be very competitive. Morris advises anyone interested in those jobs to get as much teaching experience as they can and to meet the faculty even before the jobs open. "Contact the department and offer to give a seminar. It’s never too early to start."

Although outsiders consider doing science at a small college such as Haverford an "alternative" or "nontraditional" career path, Morris disagrees. "I do the same kind of work [as scientists at a research university], just on a smaller scale," she says. "The quantity is a little different because we do so much more teaching, but the expectations are the same for tenure. Just like anybody else, I need publications, funding, and a high reputation among my peers."

Polly Shulman writes from New York, New York.

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Photos courtesy of Andrea Morris.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700171