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Research Careers at Community Colleges?

Two-year colleges aren't known for their scientific research programs. How could they be? Faculty members at such institutions are usually too busy teaching. They often teach more courses in a single year than faculty members at research universities teach before standing for tenure. There are no postdocs or graduate students to do the laboratory work -- just freshmen and sophomores, many with educational deficits. Apart from the teaching labs, there is little laboratory space, and lab equipment is rudimentary (with important exceptions, as we will see).

The highest goal of most 2-year college academic (as opposed to vocational) programs -- and it is a high goal indeed -- is to send graduates on to 4-year colleges. Who's got time for research?

Research, it turns out, is one of the best ways to accomplish that goal: Young students who have the opportunity to get their hands dirty in the lab tend to be motivated to take the next step to a 4-year college; those exposed only to textbooks can't match their enthusiasm. And today's community college professoriate is well prepared for the task: Community college faculty spray out of the same stream that trains faculty for research universities. They typically have Ph.D.s, they have often done postdocs, and their curricula vitae document a record of original research. Some, like Jacqueline Crisman, started out as faculty members at research universities.

An article this week in Science looks at the challenge of organizing and maintaining research programs at 2-year institutions, and the faculty who take it on -- partly to prepare their students for futures in the scientific workforce and partly to suit their own desire to keep doing research.

Science Careers takes a closer look at three such scientists, examining their motivations, what the work is like, and how they ended up where they are. All three carry heavy teaching loads, but by incorporating their research into their normal teaching loads, they're able to satisfy their teaching credits, educate and inspire their students, and conduct research at the same time.

None of these three thought they would wind up teaching permanently at a community college, but now that they've had that experience, none of them can imagine doing anything else.

Preserving the Past and Promoting the Future

Niccole Villa Cerveny teaches geology at Mesa Community College in Arizona, including a research course for which students rate the susceptibility of ancient Hopi rock art to erosion. She's preserving the past and promoting the future of budding geoscientists.

A Research Collaborative in Chicago

Thomas Higgins is a biochemistry professor at Harold Washington College in Chicago, Illinois. He and other local community college instructors have organized the STEM-ENGINES undergraduate research collaborative to promote research at their institutions.

Cutting-Edge Biochemistry Close to Home

Jacqueline Crisman left a promising biomedical research career at Pennsylvania State University to be closer to home. Now a professor at Jamestown Community College in Olean, New York, she's built a cutting-edge biochemistry program from scratch.