Of mice and freshmen: Professor exhorts Conn College Class of 2018

New London - Exhorting the Class of 2018 to "dance through science" and "paint religion," Connecticut College chemistry Professor Marc Zimmer compared the liberal arts education the 503 freshmen are embarking on to "a really beautiful, four-story, lush, verdant maze."

"There's no straight path going from here to the exits," he told the students, faculty and staff gathered at the college's 100th Convocation on Thursday. "You've got to personally design your education."

Zimmer, the dean of studies at the college, has focused his chemistry research on bioluminescence in organisms and its application to biomedical research. His talk, titled "Amazing Mice Light Up the Liberal Arts," was the keynote address during the ceremony, which took place on a clear late afternoon on the Jean C. Tempel '65 Green following a procession of faculty, class officers and the freshmen class.

Unlike the regimented South African educational system where he spent his undergraduate years, Zimmer said, Conn College offers the chance for interdisciplinary learning and exploration that will prepare students for an unpredictable future. He offered "three pieces of evidence" to convince them that "the Connecticut College maze is worth doing."

His first piece of evidence was the fact that only 20 percent of all undergraduate science majors end up doing jobs that involve science. A second reality, he said, is that in 10 years, the majority of the freshmen class will be employed "in careers that don't exist now."

"How can you prepare for jobs that don't exist yet?" he asked. "By knowing a bit of everything and how it all links together."

He then offered an anecdote from experiments on mouse brains. Mice, he said, are nocturnal creatures that feel their way in the dark by using their whiskers. By implanting bioluminescence genes from jellyfish, mouse neurons will light up when messages are being sent from the whiskers to the cerebral cortex, he said. In experiments in which a portion of a mouse's skull is removed and replaced by a glass window, he said, scientists have observed that the neurons of a mouse traveling along a straight path to find food barely illuminates. But when the mouse has to find its way through a complex maze to find food, the brain brightens with activity.

"Your brain's going to work," Zimmer said. "Make your dendrites dance."

During her remarks at the convocation, college President Katherine Bergeron said Conn's 100th academic year will be marked by two significant projects. It has begun a $9.1 million renovation of the Charles E. Shain Library, built in 1976, and will reshape its curriculum to "revision" it for liberal learning and "progressive courses of study."

j.benson@theday.com
Twitter: @BensonJudy

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