News and Media
Rebecca Whelan wins Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award
Nov. 16, 2011
Associate Professor of Chemistry Rebecca Whelan, whose work centers on developing reliable, non-invasive tests for early detection of ovarian cancer, has received a Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.
The Henry Dreyfus teacher-scholar program supports the research and teaching careers of talented young chemistry faculty at U.S. colleges and universities that offer bachelor or master’s degrees in the chemical sciences. The program is highly competitive, with only a half-dozen faculty chosen each year. Selection is based on accomplishment in scholarly research with undergraduates, as well as a demonstrated excellence in teaching, and the award provides an unrestricted research grant of $60,000.
“It is humbling to be recognized with this nationally competitive award,” says Whelan. “I see it as a vote of confidence in our department and the science program here at Oberlin. It motivates me to keep working harder than ever to train Oberlin students as skilled, articulate practitioners of science.”
This fall, Whelan was awarded a $345,000 grant for cancer detection and diagnosis research from The National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute. A bioanalytical chemist, Whelan is interested in developing tests for early detection of ovarian cancer, which is responsible for approximately 14,600 deaths in the United States each year.
Whelan says she will use the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award to support aspects of her ovarian cancer research. “Specifically, this grant will move forward ongoing fundamental research on the structure and function of a set of ovarian cancer biomarkers,” she says. “The NIH/NCI grant supports work that is more directly applied to diagnostics and therapy, which is consistent with the mandate of the NIH to positively impact human health. This Dreyfus award will enable me to push forward some work that is a little more fundamental, including some molecular modeling of cancer biomarkers using the Oberlin supercomputer, a truly great local resource.”
Whelan will also use part of the Dreyfus Foundation award to support her ongoing collaborative work with Associate Professor of Biology Mary Garvin on the role of chemical communication between birds and mosquitoes in the perpetuation of West Nile virus.
Being a teacher-scholar means that research and teaching frequently complement each other in the lab and in the classroom, Whelan says, citing her Topics in General Chemistry course as an example. The combination laboratory and lecture class is intended for students with strong backgrounds in high school science and math.
“Because of the students’ strong preparation and interest in the physical sciences, I felt compelled to keep the class level challenging while emphasizing the dynamic nature of chemical research,” she says. “While teaching a unit on acid/base chemistry, I developed a series of mini-lectures called “What Acids and Bases Did on My Summer Vacation.” Each of these short lectures explained how acid/base reactions were vital to my ongoing research in ovarian cancer biomarker detection, and how Oberlin undergraduates just like them were making important contributions to this research. The student response to bringing research into the classroom was very enthusiastic, and several of these students went on to work as research assistants during their first year on campus.”
Whelan joined the Oberlin faculty in 2005. She is on research leave for the 2011-12 academic year and is spending the year at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, where she says she is learning new laboratory techniques. She says that student researchers are vital to her scholarly work, and Oberlin students have consistently impressed her with their ability to engage with science on multiple levels.
“What I love about teaching Oberlin students is that they thrive on challenge and excel at integrating ideas from various sources. I have brought some approaches into my classrooms that are not completely typical in a science class, such as an emphasis on reading, writing, and effective communication of complex technical information in a variety of media.
“We are incredibly fortunate at Oberlin to have such a strong culture of student-faculty research in the sciences. I have mentored 26 undergraduate student researchers since arriving at Oberlin. Working with these student researchers has solidified my belief in the profound value of undergraduate research in training young scientists.”