Keck Science Department: Why Should You Care?

By Nancy Herrera ’15, Design Editor

With a challenging curriculum, real research and interdisciplinary approach, the W.M. Keck Science Department of Pitzer, Claremont McKenna and Scripps Colleges has been described as “one of the most vibrant and cutting edge educational initiatives in this country.”

To Professor Scott Gould, the physics professor who described the science department for which he works in the above terms, a large part of the department’s innovation comes from it housing the physics, chemistry and biology departments together in the same building. Being able to have lunch with colleagues in the chemistry and biology departments allows Gould to collaborate with them on “non-traditional projects.”

One such project to involve all scientific disciplines taught in this joint science department includes an ongoing study on spider silk. Julia Massimelli, visiting assistant professor of biology, was also attracted to the joint aspect of the department. “I was walking in the hallways, and would interact with the professors in a friendly way. It is this [type of collegiate] environment that makes science great,” she said.

Andrew Zanella, a chemistry professor and current director of the science and management major, started working for the joint science department in 1975. Since then, said Zanella, “a lot has changed.” These changes include more than just the name change from Joint Science Department to Keck Science Department. Zanella said that the entire department used to be located in the room that is now the Scripps art department in Baxter Hall. The department’s current building was obtained in 1992. Faculty and students have more than doubled over the course of Zanella’s professorship. Due to the increase in students, there are currently plans to expand the department with the construction of a second building on Pitzer.

Some of the newest majors to the department, which has grown threefold in Zanella’s 36 years working for it, include neuroscience, environmental analysis and art conservation. Additionally, a proposal for a new biophysics major has been submitted and is currently under consideration.

The science and management major was created 20 years ago, when biotech industries had just started taking off. Chemistry Professor Anthony Fucaloro, a professor instrumental in the foundation of the science and management major, had

a vision for a major that would include sufficient study of economics to prepare its students for a career in industries that focused on science. The intense 18-course program has graduated about 100 students in total. Some graduates have established themselves in the biotech industries, while others are now doctors and veterinarians with their own private practices. For these graduates, the science and management major was excellent training because running a private practice requires business skills.

Another program that highlights Keck’s focus on interdisciplinary studies is the Accelerated Integrated Science Sequence (AISS). According to the Keck Science Department website, AISS is a “year-long introductory lecture-laboratory course that integrates discussion of major principles and key findings in chemistry, biology and physics.” Students in the intensive course analyze major concepts, such as medicine and neuroscience, through the lenses of all the different scientific disciplines. Current AISS student Lauren Mitten (‘15) said that this approach has allowed her to understand different phenomena more fully. “There have been many ‘so that’s why the world works that way’ or ‘that’s how that actually happens’ moments in class” said Mitten. Mitten added that, because of AISS, “I know I’ll be better in whatever field I go into.”

Seemingly contrary to the Keck Science Department’s mission is its apparent disinterest in the earth sciences, including geology, climatology and geography. Professor Gould explained that this lack of engagement is due to historical reasons. Keck was established with the intent of educating pre-med students. The only classes needed to apply to medical school involve chemistry, biology and physics, so there was no need for earth science classes to be included in the joint science department. However, the Keck Science Department is looking to change this oversight of the earth sciences. The department has hired a climatologist, and the next hire will be a geographer.

Biochemistry major Kelly Garten (‘12) said that her experience in the Keck Science Department was “very intense” and has “gone really fast.” Although the curriculum was challenging, Garten thinks her experience has been worth it, because “grad schools respect Keck Science.” For her senior thesis, Garten is working with Chemistry Professor Mary Hatcher Skeers, looking to discover more about the dynamics and structure of DNA. Garten’s thesis looks into the dynamics and structure of DNA with Phosphorus-31 NMR spectroscopy, a specialized viewing technique. Garten hopes to use her thesis research to understand how protein binding in DNA affects how drugs work.

Professor Gould expressed the strengths of the Keck Science Department in terms of a culinary analogy: “Imagine a cauldron of bean soup. The ingredients by themselves, the celery, carrots etc. are fine by themselves, but we [at Keck Science] are like the complete soup. The mixture of flavor that you get is what is delicious. And that togetherness that we have in this department, that’s what makes us special.”