City colleges students dive into scientific research

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Education reporter
  • October 07, 2008 @ 8:50 AM

Caitlin Lottie and Nick Mensah spent a summer turning a field on the west side of Chicago into a swath of native prairie. Mensah is now studying molecular biology and biochemistry.

Lynika Strozier experimented on yeast strands and is now majoring in biology.

The three students, all once enrolled in the City Colleges of Chicago, are now at four-year institutions thanks in part to the research they did at Truman and Wright colleges.

They are among dozens of city colleges students are getting a unique chance to do research most other college students can only dream of.

The program is the Undergraduate Research Collaborative, also known as URC, funded by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. The city colleges are the only community colleges in the nation to take the lead on a project; others elsewhere work as partners with larger four-year universities.

In addition to science classes already available at the city colleges, students in the program do hands-on research with institutions like the University of Chicago and Youngstown State University in Ohio.

“Before I joined URC I had lacked confidence in myself,” Strozier says. “I didn’t think I was smart enough study biology or do research.”

Strozier, previously a student at Truman, is now a junior at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill. She has her eyes set on getting a Ph.D. in cell biology after she finishes her bachelor’s degree.

The research program is starting its third year at the city colleges. It has a big impact on the city colleges students who participate, says Tom Higgins, a chemistry professor at Harold Washington and the principal investigator for the project.

“We may not be attracting students into the sciences who wouldn’t have been there, but we’re certainly changing their perception of what they can do and how far they can go,” Higgins says.

Of the 116 students who took part in the program over the last two years — including doing a summer research project — all but 11 finished.

And so far, 35 percent have transferred to four-year colleges to complete their degrees. Many of those students stay in the sciences, Higgins says, and they see other benefits as well. For one, the  transition from a city college to a four-year institution can be easier.

“If you’re moving from a place like Harold Washington to a place like Hope College (in Michigan) and there are already students there you’re friends with and you know your way around campus… that whole thing becomes much easier,” Higgins says. “Students are much more likely to persist and get their degree.”

For now, the five-year grant, which totals $2.7 million, is covering the program’s costs, including living expenses for city colleges students who go to universities elsewhere in the nation for their summer research.

The grant could run out in two more years, though an extension is possible. Higgins said he’ll likely start looking for other sources of funding to keep the program going in the future, though he hopes the city colleges will pitch in for some of the costs.

He acknowledges it can be hard to justify spending money on such a small program, especially given the total enrollment of all the city colleges, which tops 113,000.

“This is the thing that you struggle with,” he says. “It’s a program that impacts a small number of students in a very meaningful way.”

Several students who have finished the program said it made the difference for them.

Lottie is now studying at Loyola University and says the opportunity to do research at Wright opened new windows on the world for her.

“This program has played a very big role in my choice of major,” she says.

Students presented their research findings at the Ecological Society of America annual meeting, and some will share their work at Argonne National Laboratory in the southwest suburbs, next month.

While it’s too soon to say if the city colleges will help permanently fund the program, Chancellor Wayne Watson had high praise for Strozier and the other students who showcased the program at a recent Board of Trustees meeting.

“You’re going to the person who 10 years from now comes up with a cure for the common cold, cancer, stem cells,” Watson said at the meeting. “It’s going to be someone like you.”


Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.