Researching Above Their Weight Class: Former Gov. Martin Helped Launch National Distinction


Long before he served as a congressman and governor, Davidson College assistant chemistry professor James G. Martin '57 wanted some help in the lab. He started enlisting students in his work, part of the dawn of undergraduate research at the college.

That shift has propelled Davidson into an elite national group and enabled students today to delve into research that could help develop better drugs, understand the sociology of refugee resilience, find ways to protect water quality or answer troubling questions about e-cigarettes.

The share of Davidson students who pursue significant research with the mentorship of a professor clocked in at over 47 percent in the most recent survey of the class of 2015. That's twice the national average, as recently reported in a study published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


In a recent four-year period, 174 research articles with Davidson students listed as co-authors appeared in peer-reviewed publications and professional journals, an "impressive" figure to Elizabeth L. Ambos, executive officer of the Council on Undergraduate Research.

"Davidson is one of a subset of higher education establishments that have made undergraduate research a signature," Ambos said.

The research portfolios exceed the expectations for a small, liberal arts college in two ways: Most faculty-guided, original research is reserved for graduate school, and the college's professors don't have to make an exclusionary career choice between research and teaching.

Then and Now

The E. Craig Wall Jr. Academic Center, officially christened this week, underscores the expanse of Davidson's research efforts, boasting an array of research and teaching labs in a building where humanities professors and social scientists rub shoulders with the physical sciences each day.

It highlights the college's progress over time in elevating those programs, as it houses both the James G. Martin Genomics Program and the chemistry professorship that bears his name.

That's a long way from the basement labs of the 1960s and Martin's early days as a chemistry professor, when he hired the first independent student research assistants in institutional memory.

"I just needed extra hands in the lab," said Martin, who would be elected North Carolina's governor two decades later. He found the right mitts on Hugh Barger and David Alabran, both class of 1961.

Then, and largely still today, research was for graduate students at big universities. Bucking that tradition, the Davidson pair worked side-by-side one summer in the "den of smells" then known as Martin Chemical Laboratory, named for a different alumnus.

They pushed the edge of the mid-20th-century envelope for chemical synthesis in the lab, followed by an ingenious breakthrough by undergraduate Barry Sickles '67.

"Barry conceived, designed and operated the vacuum-tube computer calculation of the most stable (lowest energy) geometry of the molecule we had synthesized previously," said Martin.

In their first two data runs, they blew a vacuum tube on the hulking, hand-me-down computer that had been recently retired from a college administrative office. When the thing did work, it took all night.

A quarter-century later, when Martin was North Carolina governor and Sickles a GlaxoSmithKline researcher, the former professor and student together attended a Research Triangle Park computer demonstration, in which a 1990-era machine took less than three minutes to complete the same level of computation as their original experiment. Sickles died in 2003.

Fail Early, Fail Cheap

Today, Josh Messing '18 and Erland Stevens, the James G. Martin Professor of Chemistry, are pushing their own data analysis using tech industry-grade hardware calibrated to microseconds and taking them into uncharted territory.

Working in the sparkling new Wall Center, Messing and Stevens explore the field of predictive chemical modeling, a mix of big data analysis, artificial intelligence and pharmaceuticals research.

Predictive modeling permits drug researchers to "fail early and fail cheap" like never before, said Stevens, by eliminating compounds early that are not worth pursuing into drug development.

Messing's work focuses on plasma protein binding, a crucial characteristic in pharmacology. Working from a data set of 670 drug compounds, Messing looks for patterns and clusters of different chemical properties that can be used to predict binding.

Student and professor are taking an online course together in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

"The machine learning software is going to increase our ability to find new correlations and to increase the predictability of our samples," Messing said. "We'll have more speed and more options."

Martin's legacy from that first student assistant researcher thrives today.

Professor of Biology Malcolm Campbell runs the James G. Martin Genomics Program, introducing students to an interdisciplinary field that uses biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science and engineering. Campbell and Laurie Heyer, Kimbrough Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science, together authored a benchmark book on undergraduate genomics.

Another Davidson pioneer of undergraduate research, Julio Ramirez, who is R. Stuart Dickson Professor and Chair of Psychology, serves as founding president of Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN). As a longtime champion of making research opportunities available and accessible to minority and women researchers, in 2011 Ramirez was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring by President Barack Obama.

Professor and Chair of Chemistry Cindy Hauser and Professor of Biology Karen Bernd's research is emblematic of the type of interdisciplinary work the new Wall Center facilitates. Their move to the Wall Center has cut out time spent wheeling equipment between buildings--that time is better spent working directly with students on the characteristics and effects of environmental pollutants.

In 2016 Hauser and Bernd were awarded one of nine National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants to study the chemistry and biotoxicity of waterpipe tobacco smoke. Theirs was the only award that included undergraduate researchers.

One of those researchers, pre-med Sarah Coats '18, began her lab research career at Davidson in the summer before her junior year with Professor of Chemistry Durwin Striplin, on the feasibility of rhenium-based solar panels. She followed up the next summer with hookah smoke chemistry research with Hauser, and that grew into research covering biochemistry in Hauser and Bernd's team-taught "Biotoxicity of Hookah Smoke" lab. The funding for Coats' summer lab assistantships came from multiple sources from grants won by the three professors.

"A lot of places, undergrads really are just a set of extra hands in the lab," she said, "but they really wanted me to have these opportunities, so they found a way to make it work."

Ryan Almeida '18 is working with Kevin Smith, assistant professor of biology, on a multi-year field study of the role of luck in species extinction, funded by the National Science Foundation for $770,000.

Almeida's friends at other colleges and universities are often surprised at the depth and autonomy of his research experiences as a Davidson undergraduate, including opportunities to publish and present his research at regional and national conferences.

"I am going to be able to get my name out on published papers before I graduate," Almeida said, "and I get to travel and meet other people in the field as a peer, as opposed to just reading about their work."

The Liberal Arts and Sciences

Research extends beyond the natural sciences and, like all learning at Davidson, across disciplines as students tackle real world problems rather than subjects isolated within a department.

Since its founding in 2007, the Davidson Research Initiative has funded projects in the sciences, social sciences and humanities.

Last summer, 26 students received DRI funding for research that included: building a better LED light bulb, the sociology of Tibetan hip-hop, phage genome mutation rates, ancient Mayan archeology, headwater stream ecology, composing music for an ancient Greek lyre, gender stereotype threat in a virtual classroom, DNA barcoding to analyze nutritional supplements, the sociology of refugee resilience and Aaron Copland's "Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson.

Nancy Pruett '18 easily sees how research and learning form and reform around big questions that cross the traditional boundaries of disciplines.

"There's actually a great similarity in how you think about music and how you think about physics," said Pruett, a physics and music double major who sings in the Chorale and has spent the last two summers exploring LED lighting technology in the lab.

Support for research also comes through a wide variety of student scholarships and fellowships, faculty grants, the Dean Rusk International Studies Program and the Center for Civic Engagement.

Direct connections and word of mouth still play a role, too. For example, the Center for Career Development, with help from a Davidson trustee, arranged four students' research internships at the Charles C. Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Biology last summer. And alumni mentors at leading-edge facilities around the country host students for intensive summer health and biomedicine research experiences through the Davidson Research Network.

The More Things Change

Erland Stevens has never blown a computer vacuum tube, but he once had to explain to students that the pre-laser era printer that he used in grad school was a high-maintenance pain rather than, as they thought, cool nostalgia.

Now, with computers, molecules move and fold on the screen.

Soon, with predictive modeling, some of those representations will become unnecessary.

What's next?

"Even when you get an answer," Martin said, "that answer may still very well be a hypothesis."


Back to the research.

  • The E. Craig Wall Jr. Academic Center features teaching laboratory spaces for classroom experiments and group investigations, research labs for independent faculty research and student collaboration, faculty offices, shared faculty and student common areas to facilitate both formal and information learning, and open forum space that provides a gathering place for the campus community and encourages collaboration among faculty, students and staff.

  • Made possible by a $45 million grant from The Duke Endowment and the generous support of alumni, parents and friends, the $74 million building includes 20 teaching laboratories, 36 research laboratories, 49 faculty offices, five flexible classrooms and a stunning open forum space that seats up to 150 for presentations, meetings and performances. 

  • The building opened for classes Aug. 22, 2016, and has been granted LEED Gold certification.

  • The building is named in memory of E. Craig Wall Jr. '59, beloved husband, father, brother, uncle, classmate, business partner and friend, who served on Davidson College's Board of Trustees continuously for 21 years and as chair from 1989-1997.

  • More than a century ago, Hamilton Witherspoon McKay graduated from Davidson College after a successful career in the classroom and on the football field. The atrium is dedicated to McKay, a physician and man of faith whose inspiration, courage, hard work and foresight influenced many people and projects.

  • The college gratefully acknowledges the generosity of The Duke Endowment, where E. Craig Wall Jr. '59 served as trustee from 1994-1997, and the Wall family, along with the leadership of John W. Kuykendall '59, Hugh L. McColl Jr. and A. Alex Porter Jr. '60 in making the E. Craig Wall Jr. Academic Center a reality.



John Syme




  • October 11, 2017