"It takes a long time to tell a complete story," says biology professor Mac Lippert. He's talking about his specialty, yeast genetics experiments and the long-term data necessary to answer all the discrete questions that make up a meaningful narrative.
But, he might say the same about the string of student researchers he's supervised for years in his Cheray Hall lab, investigating genetic transcription and mutation in yeast cells. Like the cells they study, these individuals are most interesting once they start distinguishing themselves from one another.
That's something Lippert witnessed as he prepared this past summer to submit a paper for publication based on data from a "relay-team" of four former student researchers who have worked with him since 2005.
Standard science protocol dictated that he contact all contributors so they could sign off on his write-up. What he found was a string of successes, including Maggie Holmes '06, a Georgetown University Hospital medical resident in pathology, Matt Alexander '09, a Dartmouth College biology graduate student-researcher, Will Crall '09, who was accepted into a top clinical pharmacy graduate program, and Kaitlyn Begins '10, a key team member for a growing Burlington-area biotech firm.
All of Lippert's former researchers agree that their career path is clearly tracable back to Cheray's third floor and their lab experiences.
All of Lippert's former researchers agree that their career path is clearly traceable back to Cheray's third floor and their lab experiences with Lippert and other biology faculty. For the professors, student successes like these validate the utility and direct applicability of "doing basic science," Saint Michael's-style, for any number of biology-based careers.
Lippert and other biology professors develop their students into serious scientists by bringing them into long-term research projects, often culminating with published results in science journals or presentations at national or international science conferences. Whether or not publishable data and conclusions ever result, Lippert says the work these students do is nevertheless great general science experience.
Matt Alexander says his current graduate school experience studying molecular and cellular biology at Dartmouth is "a mixture of research and classes, but the main focus is all about the research and being in a lab." "St. Mike's definitely prepared me for this," he said. "They have a wonderful faculty who stress the research aspects of what they're teaching, not just what's in a textbook."
Alexander started as pre-med, "but the research with Mac tipped the balance toward research for me." He liked "the exciting process of generating new knowledge, discovery, working with your hands, always being confronted with different challenging problems to solve."
While they were students, he and classmate Will Crall accompanied Lippert to Puerto Rico for a conference with top scientists in their field. Crall and Alexander were the only undergraduates at the conference. He just began an accelerated graduate program pharmacy school at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in Worcester.
Kaitlyn Begins '10 started working at Green Mountain Antibodies, across the Winooski Bridge in the Chace Mill, before graduation. As a student, she had a six-month internship, and was then invited for three more months of short-term employment. Then, "I was pulled more into the production side of things," she says.
It's a small company - just seven employees with a new hire. "We make custom monoclonal antibodies, which are involved with the immune system and how your body recognizes foreign invaders when you get sick," she explains. She says she never thought she'd like research till she tried it. "If it wasn't for Mac asking me to go out on the limb, I don't know what I'd be doing." The experiments she does are nearly exactly what she was doing with Lippert, she says. Her lab work was precise practical job-skills training.
Maggie Holmes '06 has packed a lot of achievement into six years since her graduation. She's a resident in pathology at Georgetown University Hospital. From Saint Michael's she was accepted into the University of Vermont Medical School, graduating with her MD in 2011 and then directly starting her pathology training. She's in her second year of a four-year residency and will do a fellowship for one or two years after that.
Prior to her work with Lippert, Holmes helped Professor Valerie Banschbach do research with ants. "Both projects taught me so much about the research process," she says, "which is essential to medicine."
"I took a year off during med school and helped develop a model for senior citizens to age safely at home at Cathedral Square in Burlington," says Holmes.
Research is even more central to her field than to other medical specialties, which is why her work with Lippert made such a difference for her, even now. As a student she presented research results at a professional conference in Florida, giving her a great sense of accomplishment.
Lippert says teaching has driven his research decisions. "Yes, I work in yeast because it turned out to be a better system than one I was using, but it was also important that it's amenable to undergraduate use. That absolutely was a requirement when deciding what to pursue." He says in science "all applications derive from basic research" like his students do, and understanding how cells work can lead to later development of any number of disease-fighting therapies, for example.
Lippert's students gained another important experience from helping him write up results of his research for publication. "I was very impressed with the feedback I received from each of them," he says, noting how each student reported different primary "take-aways" because of where they fell in the overall project timeline. All four also learned to write well for science - clear, concise, short, conforming to science style, he says.
"I'm very proud of these students - who they are and what they've accomplished," he says.