Professor’s mentorship helps student win national research grant

Biology professor encourages independent thinking

Dr. Leonard Pysh, associate professor of biology, is not only an academic advisor and professor to Rob Harbert '11, but the two have a research connection, as well. After teaching Harbert in the department's introductory biology class, Pysh recognized that Harbert had the makings of a good researcher and invited him into the lab to work initially on a short-term independent research project.

Once that was complete, Pysh and Harbert discussed ideas for a new project. Harbert, of Roanoke, was interested in doing some type of nutritional study, so Pysh proposed the idea of looking at the nutritional responses of specific mutant plants. Harbert liked the idea, and the professor encouraged him to research related studies in the literature.

"Dr. Pysh and I discussed a few ways that we might go about investigating this," Harbert says, "But in the end, the experiment that I went with was my own design based on a published experiment that I found in my preliminary research. In this process, Dr. Pysh was always available to discuss possible experiments with me and was a great help in figuring out what would actually be feasible. I have also taken three courses from Dr. Pysh, and he has encouraged me academically, like he encourages all of his students."

The innovative project proposal won a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship for Harbert from The American Society of Plant Biologists, which will enable Harbert to remain on campus for the summer to work on the project.

Pysh says, "I realized early on that Rob is a very bright young man with the enviable ability to take what he learns and apply it to novel situations." Pysh allows Harbert to determine his own daily work, but checks in with the student to discuss the work, the data and what he's planning to do next.

"I want my research students to take ownership of their projects," Pysh says, "so once I get them started, I try to give them as much space and freedom as they can handle...I want them to gain confidence and experience, and they can't do that if I am always telling them what to do and how to do it."

Of course, Pysh makes sure he is available if the students do need some help. He will be working in the lab on his own projects this summer, so he and Harbert can easily consult when necessary. In August, both will travel to the annual meeting of the ASPB in Montreal to present posters about their research. Next year, Harbert and Pysh will go to Minneapolis, where Harbert will present the results of this year's summer research project to the same group.

Research collaboration is just one of many ways that Roanoke students forge personal connections with the College's faculty and staff.