Saving the World with Science and Technology

Natural Sciences10 MIN READ

Now in its fourth year, the Pulver Science Scholars Program paves the way for the next generation of scientific innovators

Zhazira Koldasbay ’26, a math and science double major, and Dasan Thamattoor, J. Warren Merrill Professor in Chemistry and Natural History; Chair of Chemistry, work on x-ray imaging made in the Keyes Science Building. Koldasbay is one of 10 Colby students named a Pulver Science Scholar. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)
By Claire SykesPhotography by Ashley L. Conti and Gabe Souza
December 7, 2023

David and Carol Pulver had a mission: They wanted to find a way for Colby to attract exceptionally talented students driven by a passion for science and motivated to explore and solve some of the world’s most crucial problems.

The couple manifested their mission when they donated $5 million to establish the Pulver Science Scholars Program. Since its start in 2019, the program has provided career-defining opportunities for 40 Pulver Science Scholars, 10 per class, by funding science experiences for them at leading laboratories around the United States, from their first year on campus through graduation.

The first group of scholars, who arrived during the pandemic, will graduate this coming spring.

Pulver Science Scholars come from all over the United States and the world—Brazil, China, Ghana, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, Turkey, and Vietnam. They bring their vibrancy and enthusiasm to disciplines ranging from physics, geology, math, statistics, and neuroscience to chemistry, biochemistry, biology, psychology, computer science, and data science.

Zhazira Koldasbay ’26, a math and science double major, works in the chemistry lab in Keyes Science Building. Koldasbay is one of 10 Colby students named a Pulver Science Scholar. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

The program is deeply personal to David Pulver ’63, a College life trustee and two-time cancer survivor. The president of Cornerstone Capital Inc., Pulver knows firsthand the challenges and achievements of modern science. He wrote a book about his experiences, Bladder Cancer: A Patient-Friendly Guide to Understanding Your Diagnosis and Treatment Options (2017), in collaboration with his sister, Fran Pulver, and his oncologist, Dr. Mark Schoenberg. Then, Pulver was diagnosed with lymphoma. Using a newly developed procedure protocol that increases the cure rate, “my doctor no longer sees evidence of it in me, but I’ll still do chemotherapy just to be sure,” he said.

Pulver wanted to give back. “[The Pulver Science Scholars Program] is more than just about my cancer, though. We have such tremendous problems in the world with health and climate change, and what generally saves us is science and technology. Hopefully, there will be Pulver Science Scholars who will someday come up with the solutions that’ll help.”

Leading labs, hands-on learning

The Pulver program gives students the room to discover and dig into the scientific questions they care most about. The program matches students with scientific mentors, projects, and organizations, and it provides generous funding to the scholars to make it possible for them to immerse themselves in summer-long or academic-year experiences.  

All Colby students have access to individualized career guidance with STEM and health-professions specialization through DavisConnects. Furthermore, funding for research opportunities is available to students more broadly. However, the funding is guaranteed for Pulver Science Scholars. In addition, each class cohort of the program has its own faculty mentor; and the scholars, as a whole, create and contribute to a dynamic community around science at Colby.

The Pulver Science Scholars Program adds to Colby’s continuing investment in innovative science programming, much of it first of its kind for a small liberal arts college: Buck Lab for Climate and Environment, Champlin Science Scholars Program, Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Colby Achievement Program in the Sciences, Linde Packman Lab for Biosciences Innovation, McVey Data Science Initiative, Halloran Lab for Entrepreneurship, and the Island Campus. 

Andrea Tilden, dean of STEM student opportunities and administrator to the Pulver Scholars, helps connect students with exceptional opportunities at top scientific institutions across the country. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

“All of these initiatives have created fertile ground for scientific exploration on and off campus, and all have been supported by generous gifts from Colby alumni, parents, and friends,” said Andrea Tilden, director of the Linde Packman Lab and dean of STEM Student Opportunities.

“Colby has established numerous partnerships with top scientific institutions across the country, where our students have created pipelines to extraordinary mentors and research experiences. David and Carol decided that with all of this STEM infrastructure and momentum, coupled with the critical, flexible, and collaborative thinking skills fostered by a liberal arts education, Colby was the ideal place in which to create such a groundbreaking science scholars program.”

The defining characteristic of the program is access to leading labs. Current Pulver scholars have traveled around the country and to Germany, Budapest, Copenhagen, New Zealand, Hiroshima, and Bermuda. They’ve conducted research in some of the top scientific institutions in the world—the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, the Center for Discovery and Innovation in New Jersey, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They’ve seized opportunities at some of Maine’s own world-class science institutions: Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, The Jackson Laboratory, and the Maine Cancer Genomics Initiative.

As lab director, Tilden helps students connect with extraordinary experiences and scientists familiar with the program. She also actively recruits Pulver Scholars. 

Working with colleagues in the Admissions Office, science faculty select each year’s scholars, including 10 first-year students, Tilden said. “All demonstrate high science achievement, a strong commitment to the sciences via both academics and cocurricular involvement, and an unbridled sense of engagement in broader scientific issues on and off campus.”

Proficiency, community, and clarity

An aspiring physician and Pulver Scholar, Cole Turner ’24 is majoring in chemistry and biochemistry and minoring in physics. He launched his scientific career in the summer following his first year in the program when he began an ongoing project in the laboratory of Associate Professor of Chemistry Kevin Rice ’96 investigating DNA-protein crosslinking as a mechanism of action of chemotherapy drugs.

In summer 2022, Turner won a research fellowship with Duke University’s Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology, where he explored the role of immune cells in bone-fracture repair. In his third summer as a Pulver Scholar, he further explored molecular-level immune function through a competitive research fellowship at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. He has continued his on-campus research in the Rice lab throughout his four years at Colby.

Cole Turner ’24, a biochemistry major and Pulver Science Scholar, works on separating DNA in a lab in the Keyes Building. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

“It’s easy for me to be passionate and thrive in those environments. I’ve been really excited about what I do. I’ve built a sizable skillset in problem-solving and analysis and gained a lot of comfort and proficiency with lab techniques,” said Turner, who is considering a career at the intersection of oncology and immunology. “My goals now are to pursue biomedical research, implementing it meaningfully in the clinic as a physician-scientist.”

Sophia Riazi-Sekowski ’25 is double majoring in chemistry with a concentration in environmental science and anthropology. She hopes to find scientific solutions for social and environmental justice problems. Through the Pulver program, she has been involved with research at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, Boston University’s Fichot Lab, and Colby’s on-campus lab of atmospheric chemist and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Greg Drozd. She is researching photochemistry, using light and optical instruments to observe chemical changes in the environment. “Optics is a really good tool to measure ocean colors, plankton, dissolved organic matter, and more,” indicating pollution levels and the health of marine ecosystems, Riazi-Sekowski said.

“I want to learn at my full potential and not feel I have to choose a path and stick with it,” she said. “The Pulver program gives me the freedom to explore many different interests in the sciences and encourages me to balance my academic ambitions with my happiness.”

A sense of community also is important to Riazi-Sekowski and her Pulver peers. Together they attend seminars and lectures, book groups, dinners out, apple-picking outings, and holiday cookie-baking marathons. “The Pulver Science Scholars Program is what stood out for me about Colby,” Riazi-Sekowski said. “I wanted to connect with people who had the same level of drive and wonder about the world as I do. And I’m inspired by how kind and caring everybody in the program is. There’s no competition. I never feel I have to prove that I belong. I feel fully accepted.”

Saathvika Diviti ’25, who is majoring in computational biology and minoring in sociology and data science, said, “I’m really enjoying seeing how the people in the program are using the research opportunities that Pulver provides. They’re doing so many great things.”

All the faculty members associated with the program are willing to help students clarify and tailor their pursuits and hone their passions and specialties, she said. “I never feel shy asking,” said Diviti.

Saathvika Diviti ’25, a computational biology major and Pulver Science Scholar, is participating in an innovative program with The Jackson Laboratory working on cocaine-induced gene expression in the brain. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

Diviti distinguished herself at Colby as early as the fall of her junior year. Her interest in public health, and particularly the science of addiction, led her on a journey that included Washington University School of Medicine’s Institute for Informatics, the Center for Surgery and Public Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Yale School of Public Health, and Dana-Farber. At The Jackson Laboratory, she’s exploring the social and biological bases of addiction.

On campus, Diviti has worked with Associate Professor of Sociology Christel Kesler on the role of healthcare insurance in alcohol dependence. She is currently participating in an innovative new program with The Jackson Laboratory, the Lunder Bioinformatics Fellows Program, where she is working in the lab of Dr. Elyssa Chesler on cocaine-induced gene expression in the brain, a project that will likely extend through her senior year and conclude with an honors thesis.

Dasan Thamattoor, the J. Warren Merrill Professor in Chemistry and Natural History, believes that Colby faculty help catalyze a kind of transformation in students and ensure they’re given tools necessary to be successful. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

Fresh for the future

“The students bring fresh insights and interests and are so open-minded about learning new things,” said Dasan Thamattoor, the J. Warren Merrill Professor of Chemistry and Natural History and chemistry chair. “It’s a joy to watch a young scientist blossom into an extraordinary, accomplished graduate. We see ourselves as a way to catalyze that kind of transformation and ensure that students are given all the tools they need to be successful.”

Turner said, “I hope to serve as an example of how important this program can be, and how my experience in it can inspire and support other Pulver Scholars to pursue any research and career direction they’re interested in.”

Jennifer Coane, associate professor of psychology, has been on the program’s faculty since the beginning and is excited to see where the inaugural class of graduating seniors will go and how they will change their fields and the world.

“These students are pushing academic and research excellence. They’re few but they’re mighty,” Coane said. “Once the program grows roots and gains more recognition, we’ll start seeing how Colby and David and Carol Pulver’s investment will give back and how these fantastic young humans are contributing—not just to the program and its partners, but to everyone they touch.”