Dr. Shelley Phelan and the Bank of America Foundation

Dr. Shelley Phelan and the Bank of America Foundation

by Nina M. Riccio, M.A.’09

I went into biology largely because I had a wonderful, very enthusiastic female teacher in high school,” recalled Shelley Phelan, now a professor of biology at Fairfield with a research interest in molecular cell biology and antioxidant genes in cell proliferation and cancer.

Dr. Phelan has long been committed to providing the same encouragement to her own students.

But as she taught freshmen classes, she found it troubling that there was such a gap in basic science know-how between students who came from well-funded schools, and those from schools where science education and equipment were woefully lacking.

“Science programs can be underfunded to begin with,” she said, “and with budget cuts making it worse, these students graduate with a very limited understanding of what science is and what careers are available to them.”

Out of that frustration was borne the idea for BASE (Broadening Access to Science Education) camp, a one-week science camp for 20 high school students from neighboring Bridgeport, funded by a generous $25,000 donation from the Bank of America Foundation, as well as support from the Maximilian E. and Marion O. Hoffman Foundation. The camp was run at no charge to the students.

“The purpose of our camp is to make science real, to engage students in scientific methodology, see its application in everyday life, and give these kids the opportunity to do research in the well-equipped labs at the University’s Bannow Science Center,” said Dr. Phelan.

While a previous version of BASE camp was run for both boys and girls in 2007, this summer’s experience was limited to girls.

“Women are still underrepresented in the sciences,” explained Dr. Phelan. The disparity is not so evident in biology – Dr. Phelan’s department – but is more so in fields like physics, which tend to be almost all male. Students will be tracked to determine the long-term impact of the camp – how many of the 20 students go on to college, for example, and the number who choose to pursue science once in college.

“Here at Fairfield, we truly value our relationship with Bank of America and are grateful for this support,” said Rob Cottle, director of corporate relations. “Corporate partnerships like this further our mission and impact the community around us, specifically those without the immediate access to expanded science education.”

All of the six research projects this summer were an outgrowth of real-world research being done by Fairfield professors. Dr. Jessica Davis, professor of chemistry, for example, led a team of four students in screening small molecule inhibitors in an attempt to discover more drug-like molecules to combat Crohn’s disease. Dr. Shannon Harding of the Psychology Department had her group exploring gender differences in learning using young male and female rats; their work tied into her research on how exposure to hormones shapes the brain. And Dr. Diane Brousseau, biology, and Dr. Laura McSweeney, mathematics, co-led a group that spent part of each day at the beach, using mark-recapture techniques to generate crab mobility data that the students then analyzed and used to study the ecology of the invasive Asian shore crab.

Tough work, to be sure, but professors and students were aided by a dedicated group of Fairfield University undergraduates who helped. “Most of the girls had never seen a college campus, and never been away, so just learning to get up on their own was kind of new,” said Mariam Iftikdar ’11. “But I just loved seeing how they grew.”

It wasn’t just the high schoolers who learned something, Dr. Phelan acknowledged. “It’s very enlightening for faculty to understand the challenges these kids face when they get to college. I teach a lot of freshmen, and I’m convinced that performance in the first year is not only based on aptitude but on experiences and opportunities in high school.”