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Northwestern University
ISP student in microgravity
ISP student in microgravity

"Seeing Science as a Whole"

The Integrated Science Program Celebrates 35 Years

Graduates of Northwestern's Integrated Science Program are inventors of new forms of science and technology, faculty members at places like MIT and Berkeley, doctors, patent lawyers, "green" business visionaries, and aerospace scientists. They are also reputed to be among the nicest and most collaborative people around. What makes ISP such an extraordinary launching pad for success? This fall, the 35th anniversary of ISP's founding, we decided to find out.

Since 1976, ISP has attracted some of the nation's brightest science students and immersed them in challenging courses which emphasize the interrelationships among the sciences and stress mathematics as their common language. At its start, there was nothing like it. For decades, ISP has served as a model for interdisciplinary science programs across the country.

We asked ISP grad Tim Krauskopf '84 for historical perspective. In 1990, Krauskopf co-founded Spyglass, a forerunner of Internet Explorer. He is also a Northwestern trustee and member of the Weinberg Board of Visitors.

"Northwestern is becoming known for its collaborative culture, encouraging scientists to cross over the traditional academic department 'silos' to enhance their understanding of how the sciences and engineering fit together," said Krauskopf. "Thirty years ago, I was one of the early students in the biggest effort to educate undergraduates in that spirit of collaboration. Professors from Math, Biology, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Geology, Ecology, Astrophysics, Physics, and Computer Science all contributed to our education, emphasizing what they had in common, not esoteric differences. It always helped me see science as a whole. ... Spyglass started out developing software to help scientists in all of the sciences work with their data graphically. The ISP background helped me work with our customers in every field."

The program is highly selective, encouraging applications from Science Fair whiz kids and those who score a 5 on AP calculus and physics tests. Hundreds apply, but the program admits only 35 or so each year.

Sweetening the experience is the students' own "home away from home" at 616 Noyes Street, according to SonBinh Nguyen, professor of chemistry and ISP's director for nine years. "The house encourages bonding, almost like a fraternity, but without the initiation rites," he said with a chuckle. "Students are given a key when they enter the program. The living room is outfitted with blackboards and a big table where students can all work together on a project. They can turn the living room into a movie room if they like, and in the summer they hold barbecues every Wednesday."

Couches come in handy for naps, as first-quarter freshman tackle an especially rigorous schedule: high-level physics and math, accelerated chemistry, and computer science. The very difficulty of the curriculum encourages camaraderie, it seems.

"It's the community you build, straight off from the first year," said Jennifer Mills, an ISP junior. "It's a kind of trial-by-fire. Because it's integrated science, there are people who love biology, people who love chemistry, people who are going to be the next theoretical physicists. When you are thinking, 'I have no idea what's going on in physics,' you turn to one of the physics kids because he gets it and he's going to help you through it and you are going to help him through organic chemistry.

"You have your one little area where you excel but you're going to have to learn from other people who know a lot more than you do," said Mills. "You learn how to collaborate. In that way, ISP really does prepare you for the world of science."

ISP students often qualify for remarkable research opportunities. Last summer, Mills and four fellow undergrads participated in a reduced-gravity student flight program funded by NASA at Ellington Field in Houston. The experiment they devised was testing bubble formation on cathode surfaces, an important factor in electrolysis and oxygen generation during space flights. "We wore NASA-issued flight suits," said Mills, shaking her head in wonder. "[Program officials] took out all the seats of what is basically a glorified 727 and put padding on the walls. Then a pilot flew us in arcs over the Gulf of Mexico—34 times for our flight. On the downward, it's at a 45-degree angle, you have zero gravity, and are literally falling for about 30 seconds. It's absolutely surreal; you are definitely laughing…. It's an incredibly unique environment and the type of phenomena you could study there is endless." Weightlessness was fun, said Mills. The "2G" period which follows was not—"You weigh twice as much!"

With the sweeping changes in our understanding of science over the past three decades, ISP has managed to stay ahead of the curve, while remaining true to its original mission. As Craig Bina, professor of earth and planetary sciences and an ISP alumnus, explained, "Over the years, the ISP curriculum has evolved along with its component sciences, while stressing the connective tissue of mathematics, which ties together the quantitative cores of disparate disciplines. The role of physical chemistry has grown a bit, for example, compressing some organic chemistry, and the role of quantum mechanics has expanded, at the expense of some solid-state physics. Training in computing applications has changed beyond recognition: progressing from numerical modeling in FORTRAN on punched cards, through instruction in Pascal and C++, to today's emphasis on Python programming and graphical user interfaces. Novel areas of focus in ISP courses have included basic and applied DNA science, nanotechnology, the evolution of neutron stars and black holes, and study of Earth's core."

Bina described the undergraduate research experience as one continuous source of innovation. "Students join the cutting-edge research groups of individual faculty members in any of the sciences for up to three quarters, working in laboratories beside graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Many students have co-authored publications in leading scientific journals as a result of these experiences."

Opportunities like these, said Director Nguyen, give ISP students a leg up for the most competitive fellowships and grants and entrée into the most prestigious graduate programs, often leading to rewarding careers.

This was borne out by those attending ISP's reunion on Homecoming Weekend.

Suzanne Casement '89 talked with fellow grads about her career in aerospace. Casement earned a doctorate in astronomy from UCLA, did a post doc at UC-Riverside, and now works for Northrop Grumman, a global aerospace and defense technology company. She designs optical payload systems for a variety of airborne and space systems, involving everything from climate change observations to the James Webb space telescope. "Because of ISP, I can understand what the astrobiology people are looking for, even though it is not directly related to my field," she said.

Liam Coonan '85 became a federal prosecutor in southern Illinois. Even there, he said that ISP has been useful. "It helped with logic and taking things step by step. I prosecute environmental crimes among other kinds of cases. When I do have a case where science is involved I get pretty pumped for it."

The program has been an excellent preparation in clinical problem-solving for gastroenterologist Jeffrey Goldman '85 of Traverse City, Michigan. "The amazing thing about ISP is a way of thinking that is unique," he said. "In pre-med, you wanted to have the best grades, so you may not have helped someone as much as you would otherwise. In ISP, we were all there for each other, helping with projects, study groups. It was a wonderful experience learning how to interact and how to behave in a professional way."

When asked what he would tell the brightest high school students about ISP, he did not hesitate: "If you are accepted, come."

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