The Reluctant Researcher

The Reluctant Researcher by Brad Dickerson '08
Brad Dickerson '08 graduated with high honors with a major in biology and a minor in sociology and anthropology. At Swarthmore, he worked as a science associate for the biology department, a DJ for WSRN, and as an opinions columnist for The Phoenix. In July, he will start working at the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Laboratories and will then move back to the Northeast to work at Boston's Museum of Science in September. Write to him at Bradley Dickerson
hile some people may apply to Swarthmore with dreams of participating in the Honors Program, truth be told, I never had any intention of being an honors major. Sophomore year, while my friends were busy planning out what seminars they would take their senior spring and what their thesis topics would be, I was still trying to figure out exactly what specific segment of biology I found most appealing. The idea of writing a thesis did not seem too daunting, I just had no idea what I would write about and how I could possibly defend it. I also had to choose an Honors minor and felt at the time that the courses I had taken up to that point were too diverse to decide on a focus. I was very content as a course major, and besides, I would have more time senior spring to relax and reflect on my time at Swarthmore.

After a dreadful summer following my freshman year working as a video store clerk in my hometown, I was determined to take part in a research project before my junior year. Professor of Biology Rachel Merz had mentioned the Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL) on San Juan Island in some of her invertebrate zoology lectures, and it seemed like a pleasant place, so I blindly applied - and got accepted.

Brad Dickerson '08 used research he compiled at Friday Harbor Laboratories to form the basis of his honors thesis. Above, he is joined by Kelly Siano '07 and Seth Donoughe '08 on a field trip to New Jersey for his Biomechanics seminar.
Going to Friday Harbor was sure to be the time of my life. In all honesty, though, I was terrified. I had never been to the West Coast and, more importantly, had never been involved in any formal research project.

Luckily, soon after I arrived, all my fears left. Molly Jacobs '97, a former student of Rachel's, and I discussed possible project ideas and decided that I would first work on how, through delaying metamorphosis, the survival of two different species of sea squirt was affected. I soon found myself looking under and around docks in sea farms for specimens and bringing them back to a lab to keep a stock of animals. In those early weeks, I performed dissections, built containers to hold juveniles, and attempted to keep a thorough lab notebook; I was conducting full-time research for the first time.

Looking back, it's hard to imagine how I got so much done in only nine weeks. To be sure, I was doing a great deal of work. But that seemed to be the norm at the labs and it was easily the most fun I ever had during a summer.

Among the researchers at Friday Harbor were a couple of recent Swarthmore Honors biology graduates. After many meals with them, I learned that when it came down to it, the oral exams were fun. That summer finally convinced me that I enjoyed research and would enjoy the Honors Program.

Professor of Biology Rachel Merz encouraged Brad to seek grant funding to work at FHL and served as one of his thesis advisers.
My junior spring, I took two biology seminars: Biomechanics, which focused on how plants and animals negotiate their physical environment, and Molecular Basis for Symbiosis, in which we looked case by case at the dynamic relationships between squid and bacteria, photosynthetic algae and cnidarians, as well as vertebrates and their gut bacteria. For my minor in Sociology and Anthropology, I took The Americas: Cultural and Political Social Movements. We examined immigration policy and the thinking behind it, as well as how indigenous movements such as the Pan-Mayans of Guatemala and the Zapatistas in Mexico essentialize identity for political purposes.

My final preparation was my senior thesis. After consulting Molly, my course was set. I spent last fall figuring out ways to present my data and, with the help of Associate Professor of Mathematics Steve Wang, dealt with some very tricky statistics.

My experiments examined the consequences of delay of metamorphosis for morphology, settlement timing, and survival in two species of sea squirts. I also tried to consider how studies such as my own allow us to understand how metamorphosis, while very common, has evolved among lineages as different as insects and crustaceans to sea squirts (who are our distant relatives!). Ultimately, after tremendous input and collaboration with my two advisors, I completed my thesis, Understanding the consequences of delayed metamorphosis for two solitary ascidians.

After handing it in, I was very ready to sleep - a lot. But Honors exams were only a few weeks away and I needed to gather the energy to prepare myself. I was very lucky that I had friends who had taken some of the same seminars as I had, so we could meet a few times a week to go over material.

"In those early weeks, I performed dissections, built containers to hold juveniles, and attempted to keep a thorough lab notebook; I was conducting full-time research for the first time."
Along with countless other memories from my four years at Swarthmore, the weeks leading up to Honors exams, studying and bonding with some of my closest friends is an image that will stay with me for years to come. Though we spent so much time preparing for exams, towards the end of our study sessions our conversations would devolve into bad jokes about Henry Kissinger and the merits of Karo syrup. We were either more than ready or in way over our heads.

Because there are no exams in Honors seminars during the semester, preparing for the two that had been offered for the first time was a bit difficult. Examiners can choose to focus on any topic they deem to be most important. I had to trust (and hope, really) that my examiners and I were in agreement about what issues were key.

My logic for participating in the Honors Program was based on being told that the oral exams were fun. But I was so nervous. I had never taken any sort of oral exam before, except for Japanese my first two years. Minutes before my first one, I sat outside the biology department office and cackled maniacally. I was losing it.

Thankfully, my first examiner was new to the process as well and we engaged more in a conversation than a formal question/answer arrangement. I even drew diagrams. My exam on cultural and political social movements was the most intimidating, but my examiner seemed more interested in collaborating with me on expanding my arguments rather than grilling me. I was even able to take my biomechanics oral outside on a bench.

Last year, Brad presented some of his data at the annual meeting for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology and (above) at a Sigma Xi poster session on campus.
Though it was a mentally taxing process, it was the most fun I have ever had taking "tests." I would love to read a transcript of those conversations; there were times when I thought, "Wow, good point. How in the world did you come up with that?"

The next morning, I entered my thesis oral. Given how much material I had referenced, I was worried the examiner would focus on my research's technical details. Instead, we spent the majority of our time thinking about general issues of larval ecology and settlement, as well as expanding current dichotomies of certain paradigms related to the development of marine invertebrate larvae.

Considering how much time I put into my thesis, I regret I only had an hour to talk with an expert about it and its implications for the rest of the field. Talking about the content of my thesis seemed more like a formality; he simply wanted to talk to me about larvae.

The night before my oral exams, I found it difficult to sleep thinking about a process that seemed so far away just a few weeks before. Now having finished my time at Swarthmore, I can reflect on how completing the Honors Program has shaped the kind of person, academic or not, I hope to be.

Modeled on the tutorial system at Oxford, theCollege'sHonors Program provides an experience unique in American education: a stimulating intellectual course of study in which students study subjects independently and in small groups, without grades, for two years until evaluated by outside scholars. Hear additional accounts from recent graduates about their Honors experience.

"Preparing for orals was an amazing synthesis of everything I learned here," says Scott Storm '08, who graduated with high honors in educational studies and English literature. "Seeing how all my preps worked together - it was really exciting." more
Scott Storm '08
"Once the external examiners arrived on campus and the oral exams were underway, I felt nervous but also confident in my preparation," says Allison Balter '06. "Despite my fears, these final conversations proved to be a truly remarkable culmination to my Swarthmore career." more
Allison Balter '06