Ideal Applied Learning

January 22, 2024

Stretching back to the 1960s, Houghton undergraduates have conducted real-world hands-on research alongside their professors. Perhaps the best-known example is the groundbreaking effort of the students who came alongside Dr. Wilson Greatbatch in the mid- to late-1960s. Prior to that, however, professors like Dr. Stephen Calhoun were helping students gain vital experience in laboratory settings that equipped them for post-college studies, research and careers. In the 1990s, when Dr. Karen (Reese ’93) Torraca was an undergraduate student in chemistry, she had the opportunity do research alongside Dr. Larry Christensen. Today, Dr. Torraca continues this tradition through the Shannon Summer Research Institute.

Dr. Torraca shares that Houghton’s interdisciplinary approach to undergraduate research makes it a standout program, setting it apart from many other places students could study. In addition to spending significant time in the lab alongside a professor, students spend time in sessions with their peers sharing research in fields as varied as biology, chemistry, computer science and physics. They’re learning from one another in a complex community, which offers them an opportunity to think outside the parameters of their specific fields.

After spending the early part of her career as a senior research scientist at Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis, Dr. Torraca brought her real-world experience to Houghton in 2007. Today, students research alongside her, working on the development of green synthetic methodologies. “Undergraduates challenge me to run tests and experiments I often talk myself out of running,” shares Dr. Torraca. “They also help me discover reactions that are often robust enough to work at any scale. When undergraduates, who are just beginning to learn lab methodologies, can successfully run reactions, I know the process can be scaled for successful implementation.”

Hands-on research and faculty scholarship are vital to Houghton’s science students’ success after graduation. A robust research program helps Houghton University recruit a vibrant and dynamic faculty, professionals who bring outstanding scholarship to bear on a student’s educational experience. This kind of intentional, intimate research setting is one that undergraduates won’t find at large universities. It’s also a key factor in their success after graduation. Thirty-five percent of Dr. Torraca’s chemistry majors go directly into the workforce, where they’re highly prized as lab technicians. “They’re knowledgeable enough to troubleshoot problems and informed enough to know when to ask good questions.”

The combined knowledge and experience that come with applied learning make Houghton graduates highly marketable both in the field and for graduate school. Alumni will often share with Dr. Torraca how much better prepared they are for graduate school than their counterparts from larger institutions. They have had the opportunity to work with technical equipment and better address challenges in the lab thanks to their collaborative research experiences.

“The Shannon Summer Research Institute has all the hallmarks of a really successful learning opportunity: direct work with professional researchers, its interdisciplinary nature, programming that stretches beyond their time in the lab, and the social aspect of a close-knit community,” reflects Dr. Torraca. “It’s pretty close to the ideal undergraduate research program.”