For Science's Sake, a Small Liberal-Arts College Makes the Most of Its Location

Kelvin Ma for The Chronicle

Josef Kurtz, who teaches biology at Emmanuel College, does research with a team of undergraduate lab assistants. He also offers employees of Merck & Company, which has a research lab on the campus, a three-day course on immunology.
August 28, 2011

Most science professors would be dismayed if their college offered them a tiny closet as their designated research space. Josef Kurtz was excited.

When he started working at Emmanuel College here, in 2003, Mr. Kurtz set up his biology lab in a retrofitted closet. The triangular space was so small, he remembers, that when he or one of the two students working with him had to use the bathroom, the others would have to file out to let that person through. They called it the "Research Triangle."

To Mr. Kurtz, now an associate professor at the college, that tiny lab space was the sign of good things to come. He told his friends that the difference between working for a big university and working for Emmanuel was the difference between working for Microsoft or GE and working for a start-up. When he came here, Mr. Kurtz says, there was a sense on campus that the place wouldn't be the same in five years.

That sense proved true. Emmanuel, a Roman Catholic liberal-arts college with about 2,300 undergraduates, has made the most of its location in a biomedical hub, largely through a partnership with the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Company, to create opportunities for faculty and students in the sciences.

Today, Mr. Kurtz does his research in a gleaming new science building he was able to help design. He co-chairs the biology department and the chemistry-and-physics department, both of which are growing. And he is at the center of Emmanuel's efforts to position itself as a destination for students who are interested in biomedicine but also want the kind of individual attention that's possible when they are the only research assistants their professors have.

Mr. Kurtz has been around long enough to see some of his students go on to prestigious graduate schools and career opportunities. Come to Emmanuel, he tells prospective students, and you can do anything.

One of the recent graduates who helps make Mr. Kurtz's case is Christopher Borges. For Mr. Borges, who graduated in 2010 and is now a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard Medical School, the initial attraction to Emmanuel was its partnership with Merck. But it was his years of research with Mr. Kurtz's group that defined Mr. Borges's time on the campus and prepared him for advanced work. "No number of multiple-choice biology exams can prepare you for 'design an experiment,'" he says. "What prepares you for that is time in the lab."

In some ways, Emmanuel's heightened focus on the sciences makes perfect sense. The college is located in the heart of the Longwood Medical Area, home to hospitals and Harvard University's medical school. But the college did not always take full advantage of its location, which also has its drawbacks. Emmanuel competes in the Boston area with dozens of other colleges, many of them better known. In fact Emmanuel, which is part of the Colleges of the Fenway consortium, is so surrounded by other campuses that students from Simmons College often cut through its quad as they walk from their dorms to their classes.

Emmanuel was all-female until 2001, and by the time it went co-ed, enrollment had dwindled. It has long been creative about using its campus, says Sister Janet Eisner, who has been president for more than 30 years. Back in the 1970s, as enrollment dipped, Emmanuel leased out some of its residence halls, and in the 1980s it did the same with an academic building.

When the college identified an underused parcel of land to lease, Sister Eisner says, offers came in to develop it for parking or for short-term housing. Both are in high demand near the area's hospitals. But she was committed to waiting for a tenant that would bring academic opportunity, as well as money, to the college. Several years passed before the right tenant came along, then several more years of negotiations.

In 2001, Emmanuel started a long-term lease arrangement with Merck, which opened a research facility on the campus several years later. For Merck the location is ideal, says Gary P. O'Neill, vice president and site head of the Merck Research Laboratories-Boston. "I don't know if there's anywhere else in the world that has this density of research institutes," he says.

For Emmanuel, the nature of the deal—Merck paid the $51-million upfront for the 75-year lease—provided the financial stability it needed in order to borrow money for construction projects, including the new science building.

'We Took a Deep Breath'

One person who was impressed by the partnership with Merck is Joyce A. De Leo, Emmanuel's new vice president for academic affairs, whom Emmanuel hired away from Dartmouth College's medical school. "This is innovative, this is thinking out of the box, this is taking advantage of the Longwood Medical Area, the enormous biotech that's here," says Ms. De Leo, who started her job on August 1. "I want to be with leadership that thinks that way."

Construction on the new science building began in 2007, and even when the economy soured, Emmanuel pressed on, opening it in 2009. "Quite frankly, we took a deep breath and said we are going forward," Sister Eisner says. "We were not all the way through. We could have cut some corners—and we chose not to."

Walking through the science building with a reporter this summer, Mr. Kurtz points out one corner the college could have cut: its animal-research space. The faculty surveyed other small liberal-arts colleges to see if they did animal research on campus, he explains, and found that only about half of them did. But the animal lab, despite the expense and potential for controversy, made it into the final design. Today faculty and students experiment on mice. The layout, in which different groups of animals can be separated from each other, would allow them to work on rats, too.

Merck scientists and Emmanuel faculty interact on several fronts. Mr. Kurtz and a colleague offer company employees a three-day course on immunology they have designed for outside groups. Emmanuel has also developed a graduate program in biopharmaceutical leadership, which Merck offers, on its dime, to a number of its top-performing scientists with one to three years of experience. Now, Mr. O'Neill says, Merck and Emmanuel are discussing making the program available online to scientists working for the company in other locations.

Erick J. Morris, a scientist in the oncology department at Merck-Boston, was among the first of the company's scientists to go through the certificate program. His department is looking for a compound that will help cancer patients, he says, and he and his colleagues are well versed in the science behind that work. What the leadership program did, he says, was add to his skills in working with other people within and beyond the company—something he did not learn in his Ph.D. program.

Scientists from Merck also participate in programs the college runs for high-school teachers and students during the summer. And Merck usually accepts a student or two from Emmanuel for its summer internship program. "They provide us with their best students," Mr. O'Neill says. "We've been extremely impressed with them."

This summer two Emmanuel students are interning at Merck, Jack M. Ferdman and Deanna R. Borrelli, both incoming seniors who say they've gained a lot from the experience.

Mr. Ferdman took a winding path to Emmanuel. He began college at the U.S. Air Force Academy but had to leave for medical reasons. He worked for several years before going to a community college and then transferring to Emmanuel, which provided him with a large scholarship. "I came here specifically for the new science building, for the fact that better than 80 percent of their majors participate in experientially based internships, and for its location," he says.

"As wonderful even as UMass-Boston might be, it's still 45 minutes from the nearest nationally renowned research lab," Mr. Ferdman adds. "I just came from Merck research lab, and I walked across the parking lot."

As for Ms. Borrelli, the internship has opened her eyes to the kind of work she could pursue after graduating next spring. Her plan originally was to become a doctor, but she is no longer sure that the years it would take to go through medical school and residency, years when it would be difficult to have a family life, are worth it to her. Working with Merck has given her a better sense of the other options she has to choose from after college.

Emmanuel students are positioned to intern at places like Merck because they have already had the chance to do research on campus. "Here they actually do hands-on lab work," not just the in-class kind where the professor already knows the answer, says Ms. De Leo, whose own research is on chronic pain.

'Exposure to Opportunities'

The college's science building was designed so that teaching labs are adjacent to research ones. That means professors can show students the fancier equipment they use for research. In the summer, when the college provides stipends for a number of undergraduates to stay on campus and do research, students and faculty spread out into the teaching labs.

Michael Jarvinen, an assistant professor of psychology, says many people assume that working on research with undergraduates is best when they are upperclassmen. But he likes to begin working with them as early as possible. One of the students on his summer research team this year is a freshman. "I want to get them young, where I can actually develop them and maybe influence them a little more," he says. In that way, he says, "I can give them exposure to opportunities."

For example, the students working with Mr. Jarvinen in the summer also help with the college's programs for high-school students and teachers. That means, he says, that students barely out of high school themselves are helping to educate high-school teachers about their research.

Caring about science education is hardly new for Emmanuel, Sister Eisner says. In fact, she says, the college educated women in the sciences before doing so was popular.

But its renewed focus on science has drawn an enthusiastic response from students. The college had 144 students majoring in chemistry or biology in 2011, up from 94 in 2007.

Even more important than the new science building, says Ms. De Leo, are the college's small class sizes, even in introductory courses, which are taught by senior professors. That matters, she says, especially to students who may not have had the best science training in high school. At Emmanuel, it's not too late for them.

The faculty strive to make science hands-on and engaging, says Mr. Kurtz, the biology professor. That approach, combined with the research opportunities, results in students who are good at the discovery part of science, he says. Now the college is working to help its students—its incoming class had an average SAT of 1086 out of 1600, as of July—do better on the MCAT, for medical school, and the GRE.

Last February, Kaplan Inc., the test-prep service, came to Emmanuel to offer free mock tests for students in any year, Mr. Kurtz says, a program the college plans to continue.

Ms. De Leo has already planned ways to make the sciences even stronger at Emmanuel. One is to open an office of sponsored research to help scientists on the faculty find financial support—a particular challenge these days.

She also wants to expand Emmanuel's cross-disciplinary offerings in bioethics, "because then we can really contribute to society."

Just having Ms. De Leo, who is well known in her field, will make a difference for Emmanuel, says Mr. Jarvinen, the psychology professor.

The college has already come a long way, he says. "I have had a number of students at Emmanuel lamenting because they wish they were just starting out at Emmanuel again. They recognize the changes that have occurred."

Campus leaders believe those changes are only the beginning. Emmanuel is hoping Merck will not be its only partner. The college has another parcel of land it wants to lease to another partner-tenant. Knowing the neighborhood, administrators imagine that tenant, too, will have ties to the biomedical world.