Stories of Impact

Understanding the ‘Why’ in Biology: Corps Connection

Corps Connection: Biology

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Cadets in the biology classroom with Col. Wade Bell, Ph.D., biology professor and department head, uncover the intricate “whys” of molecular life, beginning with the DNA structure. Understanding the fundamental processes of life is paramount for Bell’s students, who rely on the exceptional opportunities provided by VMI’s equipment, research, and small class sizes.

“In this class, what we’re trying to accomplish is an appreciation of the molecular basis of life,” said Bell.

Comprehension of life at a molecular level is one of the first key ‘why’s’ his students must know to be successful in science—and even, he said, in life. “When you get to the college level, what we’re really after is understanding ‘why,’” said Bell. “What these kids are paying for: They’re paying for me and my colleagues to connect them with the ‘whys’ so they understand how things work. Understanding how things work in today’s environment is critical to success in the workforce. It’s critical to success in life, and that’s what we’re after.”

Students begin at the molecular level of DNA, learning to identify, describe, and isolate DNA structures. In this particular class, students isolate strawberry DNA. “It’s a simple process, and many of them have already done it in high school, but now we’re trying to give them a better context of what that means,” said Bell.

Cadet Jefferson Miles ’24 is one of Bell’s students discovering how to isolate strawberry DNA. To do so, Miles and his classmates use detergent, ethanol, and a salt solution pulled out of a vial with what Miles describes as a chopstick. For Miles, the opportunities and specialized attention from professors in labs like this help set his VMI education apart.

“I think it’s really great being able to have almost one-on-one contact with teachers,” said Miles. “You’re rarely ever in a big lecture. You know almost everybody around you. It’s a lot more specialized, it’s more personal, and it’s a lot more conducive to actually learning.”

This type of education is what Bell also said distinguished the Institute from other schools. He emphasized that such classroom experiences at VMI would not be possible, however, without private support. “The people we need to take care of the most are the students,” said Bell. “Without the support that we get from our alums, we would just be another college, another college scraping to get by.”

Because of private support, Bell says he can give his students the education they deserve and need without worrying about its cost.

“‘How am I going to get the equipment to give these kids the experience they deserve?’ I don’t have to worry about that,” Bell said. “And that’s because of the generosity of alumni more than anything else. This place would fail to be able to do what it does without that support.”

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