Major Bequest Supports New Generation of Scientists

Photo of biology student and microscope
Harlan Trust’s Initial $1.35 Million Gift Enhances Biology Programs
August 01, 2011

Activity on university campuses usually slows a bit during the lazy days of summer. That was not the case in GW’s Bell Hall where,during the record heatwave, you would have found senior biology majors Stephanie Spivack and Kimia Ramezani peering through a microscope while injecting flies with bacteria; junior Kevin Doré reaching into an aquarium of spiny sea urchins for his research on serotonin receptors; and PhD students Jesus BallesterosThiago Moreira, and Ligia Benavides describing new species of spiders and constructing evolutionary trees.

They were part of a group of biology students on summer research stipends thanks to the Wilbur V. (Bill) Harlan Scholarship Trust, which was established in 2009 through a $9 million bequest from his estate. Harlan, who died in 2006, received a bachelor’s degree in botany from GW in 1935 and briefly served as a lab instructor in the department. (Botany is now part of the Department of Biological Sciences.) The Harlan Trust provided an initial $1.35 million gift last fall to support the construction of a state-of-the-art greenhouse in the new Science and Engineering Hall and fund merit-based scholarships for biology students. The summer stipends are also funded through the trust.

“These students are the next generation of scientists,” said Diana Lipscomb, chair of the department and the Robert L. Weintraub Professor of Biological Sciences.“The research experience gives our undergraduate and graduate students a connection to how new knowledge and theories are created, and projects often result in published articles by students in scientific journals or presentations at major scientific meetings.”

Working with faculty advisers, students conducted research on topics ranging from the molecular biology of diabetes to the ecological interaction between plants and the insects that feed and live on them.

Junior Ariel Stein, for example, worked with Louis Weintraub Associate Professor of Biology Guillermo Orti on the evolution of catfish in fresh and salt waters, comparing DNA strands of Australian samples. She delved into the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s fish collection—which boasts more than 19,000 specimens—and spent many of her summer days inside the museum’s warehouse extracting samples from catfish indigenous to different waters around the globe.

“Catfish are extremely diverse morphologically and molecularly,”said Stein.“Through our research, we hope to understand more about their lineage.”

In D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, Michelle Sliwinski, a junior majoring in biology and minoring in political science, collected white oak leaf samples while researching the effects of forest fragmentation size on the diversity of leaf-tying caterpillar species and the greater arthropod community. Back on campus, in Associate Professor of Biology John Lill’s lab, Sliwinski raised caterpillars and moths to study their behavior in a controlled setting. She shared lab space and worked in tandem with two PhD students: Elisha Sigmon, who researched the interactions of insect communities living on plants, and Mariana Abarca Zama, who explored the impact of global warming on the life cycle of butterflies and moths.

Other summer projects included junior Jeremy Carroll’s examination of honey bee health as it relates to toxic agents;senior biology major Sarah Palsen’s examination of how cells heal wounds; and research by graduate students Karen Poole andJordan Chapman who work with Associate Professor of Biology Catherine Forsteron ornithopod dinosaur’s functional anatomy and feeding biology.

“The Harlan students certainly added to the vibrancy of the research environment in the Biology Department this summer,” said Robert Donaldson, undergraduate adviser and professor of biology. “Because of their in-depth experience with the techniques, concepts, and field research, many of them will continue to work on their projects in upcoming semesters.”

As to Bill Harlan, he began a career teaching English in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1938 at the advice of his former botany professor. During World War II, he served as an instructor and a medical officer in Asia. He later became an agricultural specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provided him the opportunity to reside in Bolivia, Ecuador, Turkey, and Honduras. After retiring, he continued his travels and lived in Europe for nearly 10years. In 2001, he wrote Looking Back at My Life, a memoir of his remarkable life.

Partnered with his commitment to GW and his life-long interest in science, Harlan’s strong belief in the power of education motivated his bequest to fund scholarships.

“Bill Harlan was an accomplished man who never forgot his years at GW,” said Lipscomb. “As a department, we are so grateful for his foresight in ensuring today's students also get immersed in biological research and have the opportunity to explore the natural world using cutting edge scientific methods.”