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Research and Student Development

A $500,000 gift from Anthony M. Marlon, M.D., '63 (below) puts the Holy Cross Summer Research Program on a path toward full endowment

By Christine Hofmann-Bourque

 

How low can Holy Cross go? With an average class size of just 19, Holy Cross is already the envy of larger universities that frequently must jam their lecture halls with 200 or 300-or more-students. Holy Cross upperclass students in many seminars see those class sizes drop as low as six. And in the highly competitive Summer Research Program, where rising Holy Cross second-, third- and fourth-year students join professors in the laboratory, the student-to-teacher ratio is trimmed down to an impressive one-to-one.

An increasing number of students are eager to extend their academic experience on the Hill through this rigorous program. For nine weeks in the summer, upwards of 100 undergraduates work at least 40 hours a week doing important primary research with mentoring from faculty from the departments of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and computer science, and more.

"We give students this opportunity to sit with and learn from some of the best scholars of the College," says Timothy Austin, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College.

The cost to these talented students? Not a single penny. Every student in the Summer Research Program is given a stipend, which equates to slightly more than minimum wage. They are also provided on-campus housing, a supply budget, and a travel allowance so they can present their research at a professional conference. All told, Holy Cross spends $7,000 for each participant. Because of budget constraints, last year the College had to turn down many qualified applicants. "The number of rejections we're forced to make is increasing at an alarming rate," says psychology Professor Daniel Bitran, who has been the science coordinator for the summer program for six years. "I'd love to say 'yes' to all the applicants."

That hope may come true sooner rather than later thanks to a new $500,000 donation from Anthony Marlon, M.D., '63, a retired board-certified specialist in internal medicine and cardiovascular diseases. While part of Marlon's gift will go toward immediate expenses, the majority will be set aside to provide partial endowment for the program.

"Dr. Marlon's gift is incredibly valuable to us," says Bitran, who mentored Bethany Charron '12 and Anna Whelan '12 for their 2011 summer research project, Serotonin 2A Receptor Agonist Potentiates Amphetamine's Disruption of Prepulse Inhibition in Mice. "As a liberal arts institution, we strive to increase our mentorship with the student beyond what we experience in the classroom, and getting them involved in research is an ideal way to do that. It's transformative from their standpoint. They gain confidence and rhetorical skills, organizational skills and critical thinking skills. They learn to approach a problem from many perspectives. That's the real payoff."

As Holy Cross makes plans for an even stronger academic future, the special one-on-one learning opportunities of the Summer Research Program will play a pivotal role. "When the Trustees met last June to settle on the main priorities for the strategic plan, we came up with the phrase 'strengthening the academic core,' " says Austin. "This suggests that, rather than putting on fancy curlicues and bells and whistles to existing programs, we will try to focus on what represents the bedrock of a Holy Cross education, which is the relationship between faculty and students. When you get down to it, you can't replace that."

In this respect, the relatively small size of Holy Cross, which allows faculty to develop a personal relationship with students, is a benefit and a blessing. "In the end, the thing that allows the students to really know what makes the faculty members tick, to know what excites them about their field of study, is to sit side by side with them in the laboratory doing research," says Austin.

 

The Heart of Medicine

Marlon knows firsthand about the life-altering experience of working as a student in a laboratory. After graduating from the premed program at Holy Cross, he enrolled in medical school at the State University of New York (SUNY). During his final year of study there, he was exempted from all traditional classes so that he could spend his time doing research in a cardiac physiology lab. That lab experience unlocked his lifelong dedication to cardiology.

After completing his internship, residency and cardiology fellowship at Stanford University, he began his cardiology practice in 1972 in Las Vegas, where he lives with his wife, Renee. He founded Sierra Health Services, a Nevada HMO that grew naturally out of his practice. In 2008, this CEO, chairman of the board and president sold the HMO to UnitedHealthcare, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group.

Marlon's good fortune has become the good fortune for many organizations, including Holy Cross. "When my company was bought out, I set up a family foundation," says Marlon, who filled the foundation's board with his three children, Bradley, Robert and Jeannine Zeller, so that he could teach them about philanthropy. "We give away five percent of the assets on an annual basis," he explains, with the majority of money going to healthcare and education. Communities to which the family has direct ties are the biggest beneficiaries: The Marlon Foundation supports organizations in the Portsmouth, N.H., area where his daughter lives; in Las Vegas, which Marlon has called home for 40 years; and-of course-Marlon's alma maters, which include Holy Cross and Chaminade High School in Mineola, N.Y.

Education is of particular concern to Marlon in part because he often witnessed the effects of substandard educations while he was the CEO to 3,500 employees. "When I ran a business, I was getting high school and college graduates who couldn't read above a ninth-grade level," he says.

He sees Holy Cross as a bright spot in academia, however, and hopes his donation to the Summer Research Program will encourage more students to study science. "I've met with students," says Marlon, who has visited Worcester three times in the last five years. "I met with faculty and went through the new science building. Both my wife and I were very impressed with the changes that have been made since I've been there, and the product that Holy Cross turns out. And I support their mission. They're right on track."

 

Putting Muscle Behind Science

Strengthening and expanding the Summer Research Program benefits faculty as much as students. "In a liberal arts environment, we don't have graduate or postdoctoral students, so the undergrads are the lifeline to our scholarship," says Bitran. He, like many of his Holy Cross colleagues, draws on the summer research students to help him advance his own ongoing research projects. "As faculty members, we rely on high-quality student work."

The faculty help the students, the students assist the faculty, and it all helps maintain Holy Cross' reputation as a stellar institution for the study of science. "We have a pretty impressive list of alumni who have made very important careers in the sciences," says Bitran. "That Holy Cross excels in the sciences is a historical fact, but we can't sit on our laurels."

The summer program helps ensure that future graduates are well-equipped for postgraduate life, whether that includes a Fulbright scholarship or a Ph.D. program. "The goal is to bring the students to the level that they're more of our colleagues than our students," says Bitran. "Their contributions are much more than menial labor. They're involved in the thought process, the design of experiments, the write-up for publication, and ultimately they can earn an authorship on a paper that appears in a professional journal."

 

Decades of Support for the Sciences

Anthony and Renee have long thrown their financial support behind the science departments at Holy Cross. In the 1990s, the Marlons made a major gift that established the endowed Anthony and Renee Marlon Professor in the Sciences. For 13 years and counting, the Marlon Professorship has allowed one Holy Cross faculty member to carry a reduced teaching load, freeing up more time for research. It also provides additional salary compensation and money to pay for expenses such as attending conferences.

"I am very grateful to the Marlon family," says the current Marlon Professor, Thomas E. Cecil '68, of the department of mathematics and computer science. Cecil has been the Marlon Professor for three years; he will be replaced by Professor John B. Little, also of the department of mathematics and computer science, who will begin his three-year term as the next Marlon Professor in July 2012.

"The resources of the Marlon Professorship have been invaluable to my research efforts over the past three years," says Cecil, who is writing a differential geometry book, titled Geometry of Hypersurfaces, with Patrick J. Ryan of McMaster University in Canada. "We have written more than 150 pages so far, and we recently received a contract for the book from the respected science publisher Springer-Verlag."

In the 2000s, the Marlons again stepped up to issue two challenge gifts to help the construction of the $60 million Integrated Science Center, which opened its doors in 2009, and of which the Marlons were major champions. One challenge focused on his fellow physician-scientists and was met with tremendous success. The Marlons' generosity continues in the 2010s with their donation to the Summer Research Program.

Although it's not unusual for alumni to make consistent donations in one field of study-as the Marlons have to the science departments-the breadth of his support is uncommon. "What's remarkable is the way in which Dr. Marlon is willing to ask, What does it take to do science well at Holy Cross?" observes Austin. "Faculty alone isn't enough. Scholarship alone isn't enough. Facilities alone aren't enough. It's a package. He provides all the legs of the stool. He's supporting from every possible angle."

"I continue to think that Holy Cross does one of the best jobs," says Marlon. "I do believe that the education I got at Holy Cross and Chaminade and then in medical school enabled me to do the things I've done in my life up until this point. As difficult as Holy Cross was, I came out tough enough to survive anything."