The Biochemists and Molecular Biologists

Learning by Doing

Xiao Wang ’13

Xiao Wang is an international student from Beijing, drawn to Rhodes by the liberal arts environment and exceptional quality of education: “I was looking for a school that focuses on all fields of studies, from science to humanities, before I go off to graduate school where I will develop my specialty in one field. Rhodes grabbed my attention because the liberal arts education fits my goal, and because Rhodes has a particularly strong Biology Department. Because history is the basis of traditional Chinese education, I prefer taking classes related to history or current issues, such as International Studies, or Environmental History; it is easier for me to learn Western culture from a historical perspective.”

Outside of class, Wang has taken advantage of research projects in the Biology Department to make the most of his preparation for graduate study. There, he works with professor Jonathan Fitz Gerald in the microscopy lab, learning techniques for more accurate data analysis in an independent but mentored setting. “While my job is all about techniques, I can choose my projects, and ask to learn things I don’t study in class. For example, in order to help Dr. Fitz Gerald with image processing, I learned Java programming language with his help. The best part of this experience is that Dr. Fitz Gerald values both productivity and education.”

Wang also studies cell division in filamentous fungi in Biology professor Terry Hill’s lab. Of this progressive learning project, he recalls, “In the beginning, I did not need to worry about designing experiments; my primary job was to ensure that I could produce replicable results using the same technique. When I became experienced in terms of techniques, I started to propose experiments for my project. During summers, I worked as a full-time lab assistant and gained more control over my projects. The most important thing I have learned from my research is the skill to manage long-term projects. Most techniques and critical thinking can be learned from lectures, but the skills to track data, take effective lab notes and develop new techniques take practice. Dr. Hill likes to closely monitor my work, and he likes discussions and lab meetings. Before he makes any comments he will usually ask me what I want to do next, and is eager to respond to my project proposals. In my eyes Dr. Hill is a great instructor who is training scientists, not just lab technicians.”

In April this year, Wang presented a poster at an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology conference. “I saw the way that scientists cooperate and exchange ideas, and learned about the hot topics they are working on. I see there are still many things I do not understand, but I am definitely planning to study for a Ph.D. following graduation and eventually work in academia.”

The Chance To Profess

Terry Hill
Professor of Biology
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Program Committee Member

Terry Hill, who has taught and conducted research at Rhodes for 34 years, arrived at the college when legendary professors Robert Amy and Julian Darlington were still teaching, two faculty Hill recalls as being “gentlemen,” “scholarly” and “gracious mentors,” whom he has come to “admire even more with the passage of time.”

Throughout that “passage,” the faculty in the sciences have moved from offering “traditional” majors in Biology, Chemistry and Physics to creating new ones—many of them interdisciplinary, such as Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB), for which Hill serves as a member of the program committee.

“During the last 10 years, the science departments have invigorated themselves,” Hill explains. “We all have become more interested in collaboration than we used to be. Consequently, there is a wider range of opportunities for students. When they come to Rhodes they see more things they can do in the sciences than what they may have thought they wanted to do. It’s also a great recruiting tool—I’ve talked to a number of students who say they chose Rhodes because we have a BMB or Neuro major, and so on.”

For Hill, collaboration extends beyond the classroom to faculty research. He had a long-standing association with Chemistry professor Darlene Loprete, also a member of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Program Committee, and is currently collaborating with Chemistry professor Loretta Jackson-Hayes, also of the BMB Program. The research involves investigating the mechanisms of growth and cell division in fungi, vital for discovering new ways to use, control or inhibit fungal growth that impacts health, medicine and the economy. Hill and Loprete were recognized for their work as the first corecipients of the Clarence Day Dean’s Award for Outstanding Research in 2010.

Hill enjoys including students in his research. “I ask students who are interested in doing research in my lab if they’d be willing to undertake a project. It has to be one that I can support in my lab, but when we agree on a project, it becomes theirs.” Two of the students working with him now are Xiao Wang ’13 and Kristen Wendt ’14.  

Research doesn’t stay in the lab, though. Like Wang, Wendt attended the annual conference of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in San Diego. And, earlier this year Hill traveled to Germany, where he presented a poster. Jackson-Hayes and Wang were his principal co-authors for both. “Our students are often legitimate co-authors of research that is presented internationally,” explains Hill. “Xiao’s work was of such quality that I easily would say that his being a student co-author was not just a little plum.”

What is satisfying to Hill about teaching at Rhodes? “The chance to work with so many really good students and the fact that the position here has allowed an excellent balance between research and teaching. We actually get to be professors, in the best way. If I were at a research institution I would be a pure researcher and wouldn’t have the chance to ‘profess’—to be a scholar in my discipline. Whereas here, I get to be a real contributing scholar in my discipline and share that with students. It all comes together—you realize you’ve helped someone make that connection—you’ve been the bridge between them and what’s out there.”

Making Decisions

Amanda Johnson Winters ’99, M.D.
Psychiatrist, Cambridge, MA

Alum Amanda Winters, now a practicing psychiatrist, originally hails from Birmingham, AL. She began her studies at Rhodes in Biology, on course for an intended career in Marine Biology. A few classes into her curriculum revealed a new love for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology that eventually eclipsed her plans. Winters decided on this new path before Rhodes offered the specific BMB major, and actually double majored in Biology and Chemistry.

She names Biology Department chair Gary Lindquester as one of her most influential mentors: “Dr. Lindquester was an amazing research mentor. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his management style was absolutely perfect for me, and I never found anyone better to work with. He gave me some literature to start with and just let me run with it. It was thrilling to feel I mastered something on my own (although that was mostly an illusion), and his lack of micromanaging was something I missed in graduate school.”

For her graduate program, Winters chose to enroll in the Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. It’s a difficult, competitive, fully-funded M.D.-Ph.D. dual-degree program for aspiring medical doctors who wish to conduct basic science research. After about a year Winters opted to focus solely on medicine and dropped the research component of the program, eventually deciding to pursue Psychiatry at the recommendation of her mentors because it offered a rewarding atmosphere for both inpatient and outpatient work.

Overall, Winters feels that Rhodes prepared her well for her future. “I felt like I was way ahead of my classmates in some areas, like knowing my way around a lab and how to set up basic experiments. Maybe I was a little behind in others, like making mature career decisions and advocating for myself.” Winters was on track to graduate in Biology after three years, but she felt an extra year of preparation and making career decisions would benefit her greatly. Adding the Chemistry major and taking some time to think turned out to be a great career move. 

A Firm Foundation

Ross W. Hilliard ’07, M.D.
Internal Medical Resident
The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University

Originally from Oak Ridge, TN, Ross Hilliard is now a resident in internal medicine at Brown University in Providence, RI. He chose Rhodes as the foundation of his career after sitting in on classes taught by Biology professors David Kesler and Gary Lindquester. Lindquester later became Hilliard’s faculty mentor and adviser. Hilliard’s visits during the application process informed him of the student-centered classroom environment and the unmatched internship opportunities available to Rhodes students: “I remember visiting Rhodes both as a junior in high school and again toward the end of my senior year. I was drawn to Rhodes by the obvious strength of the student community, the opportunities provided in Memphis through partnerships, particularly with St. Jude, and by the clear focus on student education. At the end of my visit when I decided to come to Rhodes, I remember meeting my mother in Java City (then next to the mailroom in Briggs) and telling her that without question Rhodes was the place for me, and I have never regretted that decision.” Even before enrolling, Hilliard was confident he wanted to major in the sciences, if a little unsure of which specific track to take.

He desired a generous curriculum in both Biology and Chemistry, but until recently such a major did not exist. Fortunately, the liberal arts environment of Rhodes accommodated his passion by creating the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) major during his time on campus. “Even as the requirements were being fine-tuned and the major had just been created, I went for it, along with my friend Matthew Cain (’07). We are doing very different things with our major, but are both happy we made the decision.”

The BMB major allows great flexibility in choosing a future career path, from medicine to research science to industry jobs in pharmacy and biotech. This broad foundation does not make the course load a cakewalk, however. Says Hilliard: “Professor Kesler’s intro courses demanded excellence, but he helped students recognize how to rise to that level. The lessons I learned from his courses early in my college career served me well through Rhodes and on through medical school at the University of South Carolina—and who could forget those Saturday mornings canoeing on the Wolf River?”

Hilliard offers this generous summary of his Rhodes experience: “My time at Rhodes really provided an excellent preparation for medical school, both in class and through the St. Jude Summer Plus program. My experience in Biochemistry allowed me to focus primarily on new areas like Anatomy, Histology and Physiology my first year. Dr. Lindquester’s courses were notorious for being difficult, but were invaluable to me both in my research and as preparation for my time after Rhodes. He was a great resource and sounding board as I decided on my major and as I headed into medicine.”