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North honored at Wetterhahn Symposium

DMS professor has mentored WISP interns every year since 1990

Each May since 1992, Dartmouth has celebrated achievements in undergraduate scientific research at the Karen E. Wetterhahn Science Symposium. While the event is open to participation from all Dartmouth students, a large number of the presenters are those who have just completed their first-year research internship with the College's award-winning Women in Science Project (WISP).


Mary Pavone, Director of Dartmouth's Women in Science Project (WISP) presents Bill North, Professor of Physiology at DMS, with an award recognizing his 15 years of service to the program. (photo by John Douglas/Flying Squirrel Graphics)

WISP was founded in 1990 to inspire, nurture and retain women in the sciences. It achieves this goal in part by providing interested Dartmouth women with an introductory scientific research experience prior to their declaration of a major.

Over 60 students participate in these internships annually. Consequently, faculty support is essential to the program's success. Since its founding, approximately 275 Dartmouth faculty members have sponsored WISP internships. But only one, Bill North, Professor of Physiology at Dartmouth Medical School, has been involved each of the program's 15 years.

North was recognized by WISP at this year's Wetterhahn Symposium for his lasting commitment to the program. "It's like an award for endurance," said North with a smile. He added that he has always been pleased to be involved with the WISP program. "I arrived at Dartmouth the year after coeducation. Especially at that time, science was mainly a male profession," he recalled. "Those were sad days, I think."

As a researcher, North says he has always enjoyed the opportunity to encourage women's interest in the sciences. "Women often see things and approach problems in different ways than men," says North. "These approaches are invaluable and have added much to our scientific knowledge."

This appraisal of the abilities of female scientists is a big part of the barrier that WISP's co-founders hoped to break through. The program was the brainchild of Karen Wetterhahn, a Dartmouth chemistry professor who died in 1997, and Carol B. Muller, former Associate Dean of Engineering. Muller has since turned her experiences with WISP into a nationwide e-mentoring program called MentorNet, which annually pairs over 4,000 women interested in the sciences with mentors from over 800 companies, government agencies and professional societies.

WISP Director Mary Pavone agrees that students who participate in Dartmouth's practical, paid internships usually finish the program with increased confidence in their scientific ability. "They feel like they have had a positive introduction to the scientific community, as well as a significant hands-on research experience," she said. "[The internship] is the cornerstone of our program."

North has now sponsored 18 WISP interns. A native Australian, he appears laid back at first observation, but becomes quite animated when he is discussing his work. His eyes sparkle when he talks about how he views research as a mystery story. "In research, we uncover more questions as we solve others," he said. "I never know where a day will take me. It's quite thrilling, really."

"Women often see things and approach problems in different ways than men. These approaches are invaluable and have added much to our scientific knowledge."

- Bill North

This same infectious spirit North has toward his research is something that is undoubtedly shared with his students. "I've always enjoyed seeing young people get excited about something," he said. "There is something wonderful about giving students an opportunity to experience something first-hand and learn to apply it."

North also sees his mentoring as a way to learn more about his effectiveness as a teacher. "Mentoring is funny. I spend so much time with these students and yet they will remember one occasion or one sentence that I said to them that made a difference. It's like walking on the moon. It may be a small footstep, but it's your footstep," he said.

As a part of his recognition at the Wetterhahn Symposium, North's former interns were contacted and asked to provide written reminiscences of their time as WISP interns in his lab. Their responses uniformly identify North as a very "scientific" man who was nonetheless approachable and open with his laboratory, research and personal time. Wrote one: "Dr. North's patient teachings and persistent voice of encouragement gave me great confidence during my freshman year WISP internship."

Reading the letters, it is clear that the vast majority of North's interns have gone on to careers in the sciences, including pediatrics, psychiatry, biotechnology and public health. "It's funny when I run into a former intern who is not going into science," said North, who added that students are sometimes apologetic when they tell him they are pursuing a different interest. "I'm just very proud of them for being successful," he said. "If they leave my lab with an appreciation for science, I'm happy."

by JOEL AALBERTS

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Last Updated: 12/17/08