by Elizabeth Einhorn ’05 and Jillian Lowery ‘00

One of the many reasons why the science programs at Muhlenberg are so well regarded is that the academic experience extends far beyond standard lab work and class time. Professors teach enthusiastically and make themselves available before and after class for extra help, independent study and intellectual discourse. In addition to the knowledge, commitment and accessibility of the faculty, ‘Berg has some seriously impressive machinery that further enhances the students’ experience.

Two of the College’s newest and most interesting additions are an automated DNA sequencer and a
14-inch robotic telescope.The automated DNA sequencer was awarded to Muhlenberg from LI-COR Biosciences, Inc. after the College was named winner of a competition sponsored by LI-COR, Inc. in 2003. Up until five years ago, such sophisticated equipment could only be found in a core research facility; it is still rare for educational facilities to have such machinery available as an undergraduate research and teaching tool. Since it made its home on campus, the sequencer has been very prominent in the College’s integration of the studies of chemistry and biology and the promotion of a community of experimental and interdisciplinary learning.

“Active participation in the process of science is one of the most effective methods of developing critical thinking and communication skills that last a lifetime,” said Dr. Marten Edwards, assistant professor of biology.

Students use the LI-COR system as part of an ongoing study of mosquitoes and human disease. Students taking Cell Biology use this instrument to sequence genes that they clone from cultured Chinese hamster ovary cells as part of a semester-long independent project. “The addition of the LI-COR system let the students take the analysis a step further as they sequence the genes and explore the connections between genetics and cell biology,” Martin continued.

The NASA telescope was acquired as part of a $1.5 million congressional appropriation the College received in 2002 to develop a science program that brought NASA data and technologies into the classroom.

Due to the funding, the College was able to purchase and install a 14-inch robotic telescope on land adjacent to Australia’s National Observatory in New South Wales, where it is maintained by an observatory professional. The telescope is accessed through the Internet, and once logged on, students can direct the telescope and take digital images that are crystal-clear and readily available for downloading.

But why Australia and not somewhere more local? Well, despite the seeming inconvenience of having your equipment on a different continent from your classroom, the location is ideal for the College’s purposes.

First of all, the part of Australia where the telescope is located has exceptionally dark and clear skies.

Further, as Dr. Robert Milligan, head of the physics department, explains, “Having the telescope in a different time zone is great! 9 a.m. here is 11 p.m. in Australia, so our regular day-time classes have access to the live night-time sky. They can also view constellations that are only visible from south of the equator.”

After several months of trial runs, the observatory was brought on-line in the summer of 2004, during which time physics major Johanna Nelson ‘05 used it to search remote galaxies for exploding supernovae. The telescope is available for use by Muhlenberg students and faculty as well as area K-12 teachers who receive specific training.

Having such singular equipment prepares Muhlenberg science students for future research and, according to Dr. Bruce Wightman, associate professor of biology, gets students in the lab doing “real science.” Students concentrate on both the academic and creative sides of science. Wightman adds, “This is what’s really cool for students at a liberal arts college. They become creatively involved in self-expression through their research. The program here is a much more interactive process that incorporates the verbal logic along with the quantitative skills affiliated with science.”

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