It wasn't his 30-year career leading a branch of drug discovery at Schering-Plough and Merck that impressed Emmanuel Crespo. Or his pioneering research in the use of cannabinoids as anti-inflammatory drug targets.
It was the quality of AAAS Fellow Charles Lunn's questions that fascinated the Drew University junior, his future lab assistant and mentee.
"Every time I went to a sponsored research talk, Dr. Lunn was there asking the most complex questions," recalls Crespo. "I knew from the get-go, I want to be able to do that when I become an adult and have an established career, to ask the kinds of questions he was asking. Questions that are fundamental to being a scientist."
These days, Crespo and Lunn are asking questions together.
As the senior member of Lunn's undergraduate research team at Drew University's Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti (RISE), Crespo is participating in real-life, industrial research that may be useful in drug discovery for pain elimination in metabolic disorders.
"Right now the data being collected is preliminary ... so we take one step forward, three steps back, and inch by inch we move forward," says Crespo. "But Dr. Lunn actually listens to my input. I work next to him, I don't work for him."
This kind of intimate mentoring is the result of a unique partnership that stretches back to RISE's founding in 1979 by George deStevens, former research director at CIBA-Geigy, now part of Novartis.
World renowned for his discovery of two leading drugs for high blood pressure, deStevens worked tirelessly after his retirement to develop a program that would connect Drew University with the surrounding industrial research community in New Jersey—including Merck, Schering Plough, Bell Laboratories, General Dynamics and Novartis, among others.
Today, RISE is the only known research institute staffed entirely by volunteer senior researchers from industry "who have devoted their retirement years to mentoring undergraduates in research," says current director Jon Kettenring, former executive director of Bellcore and Telcordia Technologies.
The researchers—currently there are 12 from fields including physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry and statistics—are able to maintain their own labs and research projects at Drew while mentoring undergrads in the day-to-day work of research design, data collection and even publication. More than 350 undergraduates have participated in the program.
"A number of the more senior fellows have totally retired and just do this, number one, for the love or science and because most of us have a commitment to try to engender a love of science in the next generation," notes Lunn.
Some researchers also continue scientific consulting work, including Lunn, who is working on an instrument that uses electronic plasma to clean and recycle plastic scientific equipment. "I still consider myself not completely retired, so it's important for me to have an income stream," he says.
RISE equipment and laboratories are furnished almost entirely by donation, much of it from the pharmaceutical and telecom sectors. Among the facilities are a high-field nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry and mammalian tissue-culture lab.
Grants, foundation funding and private fundraising raised more than $1 million for construction of RISE's 4,000-square-feet of office and laboratory space in Drew's Hall of Sciences. Annual operating budget is roughly $100,000.
Plenty of liberal arts programs offer undergraduate research opportunities, but usually faculty split their time between teaching responsibilities and the lab. At RISE, students have the advantage of working with researchers entirely devoted to their work, says Kettenring.
"We don't have grad students so the work is carried out by ourselves or the students themselves, so the pace of the research is less than what I'm used to," concedes Lunn, who joined RISE two years ago. "But if you target your experiment well and are careful, you can generate a fair amount of interesting data that potentially could be used in publications. That is my goal downstream."
For Crespo the work is personal. He grew up in a household headed by a single mother with epilepsy. "I've known since I was in high school that I wanted to be a scientist," he says, adding: "I want to be one of the leading scientists in epilepsy so that families with epilepsy don't have to go through what we went through."
He may be laying those foundational stones now. His work with Lunn is contributing data on cannabinoid CB2, which may help validate the receptor as a drug target for neurological diseases including epilepsy.
Naturally, when classmates hear that Crespo is working on cannabinoid research they tease him about marijuana. "And I'm like, noooo, it's the medicinal properties that don't get you high," says Crespo.
As serious as he is about the research, Crespo is even more earnest about his long-term career goals: "I know 100 percent I want to lay down my life for getting a Ph.D.," he says emphatically. He plans to study neuroscience.
Lunn says RISE students often get a big boost in employability because of the practical lab skills they develop: "If your career path takes you into any sort of lab setting, it really helps to have the people hiring them contact me and ask, 'What are the kid's hands like?'"
It goes beyond lab skills, however, he adds: "These kids can discuss in great detail the work they've been doing, whether it's attempting to develop an antimicrobial, or do medicinal chemistry on a target that was pursued in the pharmaceutical industry, or a project like mine in which we are trying to progress a compound that has not gotten a lot of mileage within the literature yet. I think that's all to the good."
Sometimes it takes working in a working lab to discover that science is not your calling. Lunn sees value in this as well.
"There are a number of students who spend concentrated time in the lab and come out at the end and say, 'This isn't my cup of tea,'" observes Lunn, adding: "We see that as a success as well, because you know, science is not for everybody. Critical thinking is, however."
He elaborates: "In an age when there is a lot of info out there and not all of it is correct, being able to show the next generation how to evaluate the info they are presented with is critically important. As scientists, we believe that the scientific method is the way to do that very well.
"We would not be doing this if we didn't think it was important."