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Math and Natural Sciences
College should prepare you for life after graduation, whether you go into the workforce or—as Elitsa Stoyanova did—enter a prestigious Ph.D. program in developmental biology and embryology. Thanks to three-and-a-half years of actual lab work as an undergraduate at Ithaca College, Elitsa will be able to dive right into serious research as a graduate student.
IC affords science students opportunities that larger institutions tend to reserve for graduate students. “It can be really hard to get into a lab and actually do research and not just wash the glassware,” Elitsa says of her peers’ experiences in programs at other universities. “So a lot of kids who are very talented wind up going to grad school with only a couple of months—maybe a year—of research experience.”
Elitsa worked with assistant professor Ian Woods who’s examining the genetics behind anxiety in zebrafish (the animals share a similar genetic structure to humans). This work could someday lead to better, more nuanced treatments for anxiety and depression.
“Ian has been fantastic. I owe my grad school success to him. He gave me great advice on how to write my personal statement, how to talk to my interviewer, what questions to ask. He has been really insightful about what it is to be a Ph.D. student in these times.”
As a junior, Elitsa gave a presentation at the 245th American Chemical Society national meeting in New Orleans, sharing what she’d learned about enzymes that make bacteria undetectable to host immune systems. She also worked in assistant professor Catherine Malele’s lab—forging a connection that helped Elitsa land a summer internship with the University of Pennsylvania’s Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.
“I honestly think the entire science faculty [at Ithaca College] is phenomenal. They have all inspired me in a way.”
Elitsa chose Rockefeller University for graduate school because the program let her use her extensive experience right away. Since she’s already versed in basic lab techniques, she can focus on loftier goals. “I want to be able to think on my own and ask the right questions. I want to find a mentor who will give me enough freedom to explore my ideas. I want to be in charge of where the project is going—that is how you learn to be a scientist.”
>> More on this story: Beneath the Surface
In high school, I considered myself a pretty good student. Most of my friends took the same classes I did and knew they wanted to be biomedical engineers, environmental scientists, or doctors someday. I was confident in my abilities and had plenty of ideas about my interests, but I wasn’t prepared at 18 to make what I thought was a huge choice. When I was looking for colleges, I wanted a school that acknowledged that it takes time and experience to make that decision. Ithaca College’s Exploratory Program offered me just that.
The Exploratory Program provided me with so many resources. I took a course specifically designed to help college students discover their passions. My faculty advisor, Elizabeth Bleicher, asked me focused questions to reveal potential majors that might suit both my personality and abilities.
In high school I enjoyed physics, and I knew coming in that I wanted to take a college-level course on the subject. Professor Bleicher referred me to Professor Michael “Bodhi” Rogers. His passion is infectious. After completing the introductory class, I realized that I loved physics. I like the logic involved in it. It’s not about memorization—it’s about problem-solving in real life. That intellectual challenge is exactly what I was looking for in my college experience.
The enthusiasm of the people in the physics department also really impressed me. They’re totally dedicated to using a teaching style based on the most current research about how students best learn. I had a class in the performance-based physics classroom—a collaborative learning environment where the professor is in the center with projectors all around, and students are seated in groups so that they can discuss questions before answering. It was one of the most powerful educational experiences I have ever had.
By talking to my faculty advisor and professors, I learned what I can do with a physics major. I can be anything from an engineer to a lawyer or teacher. Educators in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) are in demand, and teaching is something I’m definitely interested in. Physics majors score well on law school entrance tests, and I accepted a summer internship working in the legal department of a technologies corporation. The idea that I could major in a subject that was really important, had a great job outlook, and would still let me do a variety of different things down the road really appealed to me.
I also visited Career Services as part of my exploration, and they helped me discover ways my preferences could be matched with potential careers. That led me to realize that I could actually pursue multiple interests. Now, not only am I a physics major, but I am also a business administration minor.
The Exploratory Program was the reason I came to Ithaca College. Though I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, I didn’t like calling myself “undecided” because I had decided that I wasn’t ready to choose a major yet. I wanted time to explore; I wanted guidance along the way—and that’s exactly what Ithaca gave me.
When Kacey Deamer was 14, she noticed healthy trees in her neighborhood marked for removal. “There was nothing wrong with them. They just happened to be bothersome to somebody,” Kacey recalls. That was when she realized many people don’t appreciate the planet for what it is.
Kacey decided she could make a difference by investigating and reporting on environmental issues. “I want to share my passion through journalism so that people not only understand the environmental issues at hand, but they’re also emboldened to go out and act on them.”
As a student at IC, Kacey took every opportunity to expand her understanding of the environment and media. She traveled with a class to the United Nations Framework Conference for Climate Change in Cancun, Mexico, to observe climate talks in action. Guided by professors, she landed media internships each year of her college career. She reported environmental news for the Ithacan newspaper and Buzzsaw magazine—and as a senior, she became the first student to be an editor for both.
While researching a story, Kacey emailed Ithaca alumna Kate Sheppard ’06, staff reporter at Mother Jones magazine. Kate became Kacey’s mentor and connected her to an internship opportunity at the magazine. She also encouraged Kacey to apply for the Recharge! retreat held by Focus the Nation. Recharge! brings together rising leaders in the clean energy movement from across the country to learn about and discuss environmental issues.
Kacey was invited to the retreat, and spent an enlightening week visiting a coal plant, wind farm, and dam, climbing a glacier, and speaking with other students who were passionate about environmental issues. “It was one of those experiences that really encourages you to think that a difference can actually be made, that you’re not the only one thinking that something needs to change.”
Kacey plans to continue reporting on the issues after graduation and to further her education in environment and science journalism. The inspiration for the next phase of her environmental education came from her IC class trip to the UN climate change conference. “Somehow scientists are able to communicate and agree, and the politicians can’t make it happen. What I really want to be able to do is bridge that gap. Take the science and translate it so that people understand, and then those readers can push the politicians to make the changes that we need.
“I feel ready to save the planet in some small or large way and to take on the challenge of making people care. It’s not an easy thing to do, but I think I can do it.”
Computer science and history are not commonly paired in the classroom. But at Ithaca College, professors Ali Erkan and Michael Smith have begun a collaboration that may help improve the way students learn.
The project began because of computer science professor Ali Erkan’s curiosity. He wanted to look at how students use wikis—websites developed collaboratively by a community of users who can add and delete information—so he could research and create a visual map of the way the students make connections between ideas. He asked himself, If students produce things that can be visualized as structures, will that allow us to understand understanding itself?
“I think computer science allows you to develop the tools to work on that question—but then you need a context,” Ali says. “I thought the humanities would be the best context to explore, and I had to find the right person to work with.”
Ali had just the person in mind—a history professor he had met during a bus ride in Ithaca a couple years earlier and had since interacted with on the IC campus. He emailed Michael Smith to share his idea.
“The fact that Ithaca, both as an institution and a community, is small enough that you can have these kinds of interpersonal connections that can then become more formal collaborations is something I really value,” Michael says. “In some ways I’m an odd choice because I’m a little bit of a digital skeptic, but when Ali approached me with this idea of using wikis as a way of representing knowledge—that you could kind of lift up the hood and see some structures in there—I was intrigued.”
Ali and Michael have been working with students in both their fields to further explore the project’s questions. They created a grant proposal and received a digital humanities start-up grant from the National Endowment for Humanities. They hope that by gaining understanding of how thought connections are formed, they can eventually help students improve how they research and learn.
Ithaca College has given them the support they need to make the project a success. “It is a teaching-oriented institution, so we’re encouraged to be innovative and emphasize teaching excellence in all sorts of ways. So this is a way to remain active as scholars and at the same time improve what happens in our classroom,” says Michael.
“There’s no quota for the amount of papers you have to write or the amount of money you have to bring in. Those things are in place at other institutions so that there’s more research productivity, but I think it ends up being a hindrance on the research,” Ali says. “We both feel liberated by not operating under those constraints, so we can simply follow our curiosity, and that becomes our optimum point of operation. Because we are curious, we are productive.”
>> More on this story: Untangling the Web
When it came time for Rochelle Frankson to choose a college, her mother had a suggestion for her: Ithaca College. Her mom had heard about Ithaca during an informational meeting for parents. Rochelle is from Jamaica, and the meeting was part of a program to prepare families to apply to American schools.
“She heard the name Ithaca College enough for her to remember and tell me, ‘Apply to that one.’ A lot of good things were said in the meeting about IC,” Rochelle says.
As a chemistry major, Rochelle discovered an interest in medicine. She contemplated pre-med studies, but her interests led elsewhere. “I was falling more and more in love with the science of medicine, not the actual practice of it. When I heard about pharmacology, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
Rochelle’s inclination toward pharmacology led to lab internships during which she used X-ray and computer analyses to see how certain acids bonded to a protein known as histone-deacetylase-8, and how those acids stopped or slowed activity in the protein through crystallization. Research shows that the protein is overactive in cases of colon and prostate cancer, and their goal in the lab was to identify potential acid “inhibitors” that other researchers could someday use in developing new cancer treatments.
In the spring of her senior year, Rochelle traveled to New Orleans to attend an American Chemical Society conference with classmates and professors from IC’s chemistry department. A big take-away for Rochelle was a talk about the lack of basic scientific knowledge among the general population and why it’s important for scientists to help keep the public informed.
“You’re doing this research to eventually help other people. You have to translate it for the nonscientific community.”
Rochelle also found time to be a student leadership consultant with the Office of Student Engagement and Multicultural Affairs and was involved with Service Saturdays. “I love creating events or just being in an office or doing little tasks that are ultimately helping the wider community.”
After graduating, Rochelle went into a Ph.D. program at Indiana University. She compared departing IC to leaving family and described the chemistry department as “very close-knit” among the students and teachers.
“I expected the professor-student relationship to only be professional. But they actually have a vested interest in you as a person.”
Before Mike Severo came to Ithaca College, his life was focused mainly on music. As a talented boy soprano, he had performed with stars like Bruce Springsteen and Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall. When his voice changed, so did his musical direction. He transitioned to piano and percussion and continued to grow his skills.
But when it came time to choose a major, Mike made the big decision to move away from a career in music. At a college with a nationally known music school, he knew he'd have exciting musical opportunities, so he wanted to focus on another area for his profession--he just wasn't sure what it would be.
"One of my friends had told me about the flexibility of the Exploratory Program," Mike explains. "There's an emphasis on growing organically with the school and developing where you think you can derive the most value."
The program gives students up to four semesters to take courses in various areas of study to find the best fit for their career. As a freshman, Mike took a seminar about math and music, and through his passion for music he discovered a strength in math that led him in a whole new direction. His faculty adviser helped him decide what courses to take from there. "The best thing about advisers is that if you have goals, they can help you plan so that you can achieve those goals."
Mike focused his path on finance and accounting, and secured an internship at FBR, a leading investment bank. During his senior year, he led a team of his peers to victory in the Adirondack Cup competition by achieving the greatest return on a hypothetical million-dollar investment portfolio. Ithaca College bested undergraduate and graduate students from 17 other colleges and universities in New England and New York, including Hofstra University, SUNY Plattsburgh, Clarkson University, and SUNY Stony Brook. (You can read more about Mike leading his team to success in the Ithacan.)
Mike is excited about his future in finance as he approaches graduation, and he will continue to enjoy a musical life outside of work. He is confident that the Exploratory Program helped him make the right choices. "Sometimes life pushes you in a direction, and you end up in a place you never thought you'd be--but you find yourself loving it."
More on this story: The Center for Trading and Analysis of Financial Instruments
Good educators stick with their students until the concepts they’re teaching gel. Considering his research area, Andy Smith, a biology professor at Ithaca College, might have a slight advantage.
Andy and his student researchers—all of them undergraduates at IC—study the unique properties of the gel that snails use to stick themselves to surfaces, even slippery rocks battered by ocean waves. It might not sound like the most exciting topic, but Andy points out the incredible potential.
“Gel like this would make an ideal medical adhesive because it would stick to wet surfaces, and no matter how much the tissue flexed and bent, the gel would flex and bend with it,” he says.
Andy’s student researchers are there because the work is as exciting to them as it is to their professor. Sure, Ithaca requires science students to immerse themselves in lab research for one semester, but placement is based on student preference. Many continue beyond that one semester and eventually earn the autonomy to run their own projects and experiments, assist in data analysis, and author papers submitted for publication.
“I really like working with students in the lab because every day is different, and you never know what you’re going to find,” Andy says. “It’s a terrific process of seeing students grow in independence, maturity, and intellectual sophistication.”
That sort of hands-on learning is central to the Ithaca College experience.
“You can learn so much more in a research lab than in a classroom because research is a big, complex project,” Andy says. “You don’t know the answers, but you become responsible for finding them.”
>> More on this story: Andy Smith's faculty profile
Eric Leibensperger was always interested in outdoorsy things, and at Ithaca College he became even more interested in the environment. “I eventually double majored in physics and chemistry to learn how to apply science to environmental issues,” he says.
Eric recently completed his Ph.D. at Harvard, and he credits his experiences in Ithaca’s science departments with giving him the ideal foundation for success.
“In a Ph.D. program you’re doing research all the time, and Ithaca was great preparation for that. I did research nearly every semester, and I learned the fundamentals for everything. I learned to think logically. I learned to write and present research. And when you do research at Ithaca, you work side-by-side with faculty and get lots of hands-on experience. At Harvard, that gave me a big leg up on students who’d been undergrads at large research universities but didn’t have that kind of experience,” he observes.
Eric’s doctoral thesis examines climate change from two sides of a coin—how climate affects air quality and how air quality affects climate.
“My field—atmospheric chemistry—straddles chemistry and physics, so my Ithaca majors were the perfect fit. I’ve just begun a postdoctorate program at MIT, looking at similar issues in the stratosphere. Long term, I’d like to become a professor,” he says.
Eric points out that while Ithaca is a great place to learn science, it’s not just a science school. There are plenty of opportunities to explore other disciplines and pursue personal passions, too.
“I was really into music before coming to IC, and I knew it was a really strong college for that. I took music classes right along with the music students, and played bass in a jazz ensemble. That kind of balance helps you manage your time and stay sane. At Ithaca, you really get the whole experience.”
>> More on this story: Undergraduate Research at IC: Learn by Doing
There are no bogeys when it comes to finding a major in college. So when Adam Karnish switched from biology to chemistry and then to physics during his first two years at Ithaca College, he was never in danger of going over par.
The lifelong golfer’s fondness for math and science eventually drew him to Ithaca’s physics department. “I’ve always been a logical thinker, and physics is the study of how things work, so that really interested me,” he says.
The summer before his senior year, Adam joined an Ithaca College/Cornell research team studying the composition of an asteroid. The project required remotely accessing the controls of a telescope in Hawaii to do some of the work.
For his senior research project, Adam turned his attention to a different flying object: the golf ball. The real goal was to develop his knowledge of computer modeling software, but he took the opportunity to apply it to something he enjoyed.
After graduation, Adam landed a job with the United States Golf Association, where he now works to define individual course ratings and handicaps using statistical analysis and linear regression—skills he honed in Ithaca’s physics department.
“Within the first 10 years, a new golf course goes through big changes,” Adam says. “Trees, grasses, speed of the green—it evolves dramatically.” Because of that, a course needs to be rated at least three times in its first 10 years of existence, he says, and then once every 10 years after.
Theoretical scores produced from the course rating are compared to actual golfers’ scores to determine the course handicap. Those results are fed back into the course rating system.
“If the score is affected more by shots near the green, or by the difficulty of the contours of the green, that information needs to be weighed more heavily to reflect the actual scores made by players,” Adam says.
Adam also teaches course rating and handicap systems at golf courses around the country. Giving research presentations as a student helped prepare him for this aspect of the job, too.
“One thing I really learned at Ithaca was how to speak in front of a group of people and explain my thoughts clearly, in an organized manner, to convey whatever message I'm trying to bring to the audience,” he says.
>> More on this story: How to Get Involved in Research
How do you top off four years at Ithaca College crammed with classes and a wide range of extracurricular activities? If you’re Kaitlin Kohberger, you bike the entire width of the country to help build homes for the disadvantaged.
Kaitlin spent her summer after graduating from IC riding and working with Bike and Build, a nonprofit business that organizes groups to ride across the country to raise money and awareness for affordable housing, and pitch in on build sites.
“During my time at IC, my professors and fellow students really encouraged me to push for the change I wish to see in the world,” Kaitlin says. “As an able-bodied young person, I feel the responsibility to push for affordable housing—and to ride my bike from Providence to Seattle to raise money and awareness for the cause.”
There wasn’t much time to rest after her transcontinental journey, though. This fall she’s in Austria as a Fulbright scholar to teach English and American studies.
All of this echoes the way Kaitlin immersed herself while attending Ithaca College. As she was pursuing her degree in psychology, she found time to study anthropology in Hawaii, co-found the Gaelic Arts Society, teach spin classes at the Fitness Center, serve as an orientation leader, and mentor new students. And that’s nowhere near the full list.
“I started seeking leadership opportunities on campus as soon as I could,” Kaitlin says. “I found myself in a community of peers that were all heavily involved and leadership-focused.”
>> More on this story: Leadership Development