Although I did not get much of a chance to know Heather in the few months that our time at North Central coincided, her story illustrates a larger theme that is at the heart of the College’s Sesquicentennial Capital Campaign: the vital role of liberal arts-based colleges like North Central in producing America’s scientific leaders.
She credits North Central faculty members—Professor of Mathematics Emerita Shirley Wilson, Professor of Chemistry Emerita Anne Sherren, and Harold and Eva White Professor in the Liberal Arts David Horner—with setting her on the path to graduate school at Yale University and an endowed professorship at one of the great research universities in the world. Most telling are her words about recruiting the best students for her graduate program: “We compete with (the universities of) Wisconsin and Illinois for the top kids ... the students who are succeeding at small four-year colleges ... (who) are prepared and motivated to pursue doctoral degrees and research careers.”
Liberal arts colleges as a group produce twice as many science Ph.D.s per graduate as baccalaureate institutions in general. If you want a Nobel Prize in chemistry, physics or medicine, your odds are much higher if you attend a liberal arts college as an undergraduate than a research university. More than one-fifth of the Nobel Laureates in these fields over the past 20 years graduated from liberal arts colleges—way out of proportion to the number of their graduates—including lesser-known schools such as Augsburg College and Lawrence University. The reason for the incredible impact of colleges like North Central (which numbers among its many distinguished graduates in the sciences Dr. Joseph Edward Rall, known as the “nurturer of Nobels” in his long tenure at the National Institutes of Health) is “hands-on,” rigorous training from a student’s first day on campus, grounded in undergraduate research, with close faculty mentoring. Liberal arts institutions are truly the “seed corn” of American science.
But as powerful as these facts are, and as great as the science faculty are at schools like North Central, liberal arts colleges are swimming uphill to sustain their historic role in 21st century science. In a fast-changing world of technological advances, “keeping up” with facilities has never been more challenging or costly. And without science facilities able to accommodate and exemplify 21st century science and new approaches to teaching that cross disciplinary boundaries, the students who can most benefit from what we offer are likely to look elsewhere (e.g., large public universities and community colleges with 500-student classes that can leverage taxpayer dollars to bond facilities). This is a challenge not only for North Central, but for dozens of other private colleges like us, with science buildings constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, when public and private monies for such facilities were far more forthcoming.
We’re seeking $50 million for a new science center in the Sesquicentennial Campaign and we’ve got about $43 million to go. We’re going to need some miracles—in particular, a “naming gift” of a size that the College has never before experienced—and hundreds and hundreds of smaller gifts. It’s a lot to accomplish. But for the sake of generations of Heather Carlsons and Ed Ralls to come—and the future of American science—it is an effort that must succeed, a legacy for the ages of the College’s Sesquicentennial.
Harold R. Wilde
North Central NOW Winter 2012