Wellesley Celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the Biochemistry Program

January 9, 2017
Wellesley Celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the Biochemistry Program

Wellesley recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the biochemistry program, the College’s oldest interdisciplinary program. Don Elmore, associate professor of chemistry and previously director of the program, welcomed dozens of students, alumnae, and faculty to the December 13 event, which highlighted both the program’s history and its efficacy in preparing students to succeed in a variety of careers.

Ann Velenchik, dean of academic affairs and associate professor of economics, said the program epitomizes three of the College’s greatest strengths: intellectual ambition, collaboration between departments and between faculty and students, and innovative pedagogy that “is all about moving forward in teaching and learning.”

The logistics involved in forming the program were daunting, and it would have been easier not to create “this big, challenging, complicated thing, but we wouldn’t be who were are if we walked away from big, challenging, interesting things,” Velenchik said. “So my admiration to all of you for this beautiful thing that you have built…and for the way that it inspires all of us in the rest of the College to try bigger things, to collaborate more tightly, and to think bigger about what we can do in our classrooms.”

President Paula A. Johnson, who was away from campus during the event, sent congratulatory remarks about the biochemistry program, one of the very first in the nation offered at an undergraduate institution: “What an honor for Wellesley!”

In her remarks, read by T. Kaye Peterman, co-director of the program and Susan M. Hallowell and Ruby Frances Howe Farwell Professor of Biological Sciences, Johnson noted that senior surveys of biochemistry majors from 2006 to 2015 show that more than 80 percent of respondents conducted research with faculty, and almost 50 percent published or presented papers off campus. Within 10 years of graduation, 97 percent of graduates enroll in post-graduate programs, including medical school or doctoral research programs in public health, education, and computer science.

Dorothea “Dot” Widmayer ’52, professor emerita of biology, was one of three longtime faculty members who spoke about the program’s evolution. She began with some “ancient ancient history” about taking a biochemistry course where students studied bodily fluids and learned about enzymes and making soap.

By the time Widmayer returned to Wellesley in 1961, having completed her Ph.D. in genetics, life sciences had changed dramatically, and Wellesley faculty knew they had to adapt. By 1964, the botany and bacteriology department had merged with the zoology and physiology department to form the Department of Biological Sciences.

Professors saw the need for a major that would require chemistry and biology coursework, and a curriculum that would include biochemistry, genetics, and cell and tissue structure. “This required some imaginative rethinking of course prerequisites to enable students to complete their majors in a reasonable number of courses,” Widmayer said.

The new biochemistry major, originally called molecular biology, was first offered in 1966, though several challenges remained. Chemistry was located in Pendleton West and biology was in Sage Hall, Widmayer recalled. Equipment was inadequate, and what little they had was located in different buildings, as was the case at many colleges. (By 1977, the College boasted a new science center, with open and shared spaces, updated equipment, and a common library.)

Sonja Hicks, professor emerita of chemistry, began teaching at the College in 1968 and was impressed by the popularity of the new program. “[W]e had a marvelous group of students, we have always had a wonderful group who were willing to take on this really demanding major and stick with it, and most of them went on to graduate school or medical school,” said Hicks, who retired in 2005. “I just want to tip my hat to [them]…you have done a great job.”

Mary Allen, Jean Glasscock Professor Emerita of Biological Sciences, recalled serving as program chair and attending meetings of both the chemistry and biology departments, which had very different styles and temperaments. (The biologists always seemed to be arguing about issues and the chemists just listened, she said.)

Yet over time, “there has really been a slow and seamless evolution of the program,” she said, and the departments involved have found many ways to support student research and meet students’ changing needs.

In the late 1960s, for example, the program’s faculty began to develop initiatives to encourage underrepresented students to pursue the sciences. These efforts have continued to the present day, and include activities such as an annual intensive introduction to research week for first-year students in late January. The biochemistry program has also expanded to integrate members of the neuroscience and computer science departments who share interdisciplinary research and teaching interests related to biochemistry.

Several alumnae of the program spoke at the event. Ruth Wang’ondu ’07, a biochemistry and sociology double major, is now a resident physician in the combined medicine and pediatrics program at Yale New Haven Hospital and sits on the board of directors for the Burkitt’s Lymphoma Fund for Africa. She said her undergraduate research is relevant to her career now, particularly the work she did with Michael Hearn, professor of chemistry, who is developing treatments for drug-resistant tuberculosis. “Last year I was in Africa, where there are strains of drug-resistant tuberculosis, and the treatments being used are similar to what we’d worked on,” she said. “It was amazing to see how forward-thinking Hearn’s work was.”

Biochemistry major Shloka Ananthanarayanan ’08 went to medical school after graduation, but in her third year she realized she didn’t want to pursue a career in medicine. Instead, she joined Standard Chartered Bank, where she had worked summers as an undergraduate. Her first assignment was to analyze the effectiveness of the bank’s customer due diligence policies. “I found myself utilizing that spirit of scientific inquiry that had been cultivated in me with the biochemistry major,” she said.

Since then, Ananthanarayanan has tackled every assignment by making a hypothesis, testing it against the facts, and constantly asking questions to determine the cause of the problem. She now works with the bank’s financial crime compliance department. “It’s so satisfying when you see the root cause and come up with something actionable that really makes a difference,” she said.