Launching Generations of SMC Researchers
In her lab at University of Colorado Denver, Mary Bevilacqua ’13 is facing a challenge.How can global-health engineering teams and industry personnel in low-resource environments effectively create biomedical devices to meet the specific needs of their communities? How can the available technology be adapted to work for them? The questions are not easy, but the answers are there—and Bevilacqua is poised to find them.
Bevilacqua has worked non-stop as a chemist and researcher since graduating from Saint Mary’s. She was an analytical chemist, then earned her master’s degree in tissue engineering from Johns Hopkins University. Now, as an instructor at CU Denver, Bevilacqua teaches bioengineering, introducing students to the world of regenerative medicine, device design, and prototyping. In the lab, her focus is more on the processes and methodology of device design as part of her doctoral research.
The focus is specific, her end-goal is well defined. And she credits her approach to research and her ability to connect with students back to her experience at Saint Mary’s, particularly to chemistry researcher and mentor Professor Toni Barstis.
Barstis is a professor and Fulbright Global Scholar, as well as the Denise DeBartolo York Endowed Chair of Science. Until this term, Barstis was the director of both the STEM Division and the Engineering Program.
Now, after 30 years at the College, Barstis is retiring at the end of the academic year. “Her influence, her style of research, definitely made a permanent imprint on how I approach medical technology and design,” Bevilacqua said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but it has become the driving force for my research focus.”
An accomplished researcher, Barstis is named as the inventor on two US patents held jointly by the College and Notre Dame for her work with Paper Analytical Devices (PADs). Bevilacqua, who was a double-major studying chemistry and art, was also credited as inventor on the second PADs patent—the first time this was achieved by a student at SMC.
At the time, Bevilacqua saw the blending of art and science as a natural expression of who she was. She couldn’t imagine having to choose between the two, and the College encouraged her work in the lab and the studio.
Barstis was one of Bevilacqua’s many professors who understood the value in this multidisciplinary education. She remembers well the need to fuel her own passions.When she arrived in 1993, Barstis had just earned her Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Michigan. “Every day I asked myself if I belonged at that school, if I was smart enough. Imposter syndrome was part of my every day,” she remembers. As a first-gen student, Barstis credits her college professors for showing her how much bigger the world was. Then, when the SMC position teaching physical chemistry presented itself, “You couldn’t have pulled at my heartstrings more. I wanted to show women that they can do this. I knew, I just knew, research could influence a student in a way that the classroom could not.” She was moved by the variety of women at Saint Mary’s, and saw the opportunity to influence the way students—especially first generation students—saw their place in the world, and the vast opportunities available to them.
Over the years, Barstis became a force of nature with her students and developed a reputation as a mentor-—from guiding a group of research students in Nepal to helping them solve real-world problems in the Saint Mary’s lab. Rather than focusing solely on her own projects with students as assistants, she encouraged her undergraduate students to pursue their own ideas. She has influenced generations of students who, like Bevilacqua, have become researchers and lovers of science. To Barstis’s mind, no interdisciplinary barriers should exist if they prevent students from learning.
“People don’t understand that one of the biggest influences of an all-women’s college is that these students take ownership; they are leaders. Here they don’t know the word no,” Barstis said. “Sometimes they are shocked when they leave here and see boundaries that would limit them. But I have spent nearly 30 years trying to enable these students to do whatever the hell they want to do.”
Her approach and influence has had a ripple effect, one that over time helped further refine all research at Saint Mary’s.
Kate McMahon ’18, is a doctoral candidate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. At Saint Mary’s, she did much of her undergraduate research with Jennifer Fishovitz, professor of chemistry and physics. In her junior year, she became interested in research funding—an audacious focus for an undergrad. Rather than downplay her interests, members of the department of chemistry and physics helped champion her efforts.
The result? McMahon, along with Catherine Bruno ’18, founded SCORE—Student Committee on Research Expansion—as a way to bring more funding and access to student research at the College. Barstis served as an early supporter of the program, and liaison to the administration.
McMahon, a third-generation alumna, remembers how empowering that support was. By introducing STEM students to alumnae and other industry professionals, the College provided life-changing connections. “As a sophomore, I remember thinking it was so cool; the opportunities here are endless! At the professional development workshops, I remember seeing captains of industry, these alumnae who are leaders in their fields coming back to their humble little college and love being here—and enthusiastic about the next generation,” McMahon said. “And Toni really helped facilitate that. If I had questions for someone I’d met, she’d immediately get an email and provide an introduction. If I had an idea, she would validate it. She always pushed us to ask the next question. At Saint Mary’s, you really get to be original as an undergraduate.”
For several years Patrick Flynn, professor of computer science and engineering at Notre Dame, worked closely with Barstis and their colleague Marya Lieberman, professor of analytical chemistry at Notre Dame, together inventing the original PADs. Flynn describes Barstis’s remarkable enthusiasm for “nearly everything” and her effortless talent to get students excited by the technical side of chemistry.
“Toni has remarkable skills as a mentor to undergraduates interested in research,” Flynn said. “To do this is a challenge, and requires sustained commitment, as well as an ability to spot talent, recruit it, and plan to develop it.” Strong mentoring of undergraduate student research is essential to the work they do to train the next generation of scientists, he continued. “I admire Toni for her ability to build such a distinctive and productive undergraduate research group at Saint Mary’s—taking advantage of the opportunity to expose these smart undergrads to leading-edge collaborative research.”
Other colleagues at Saint Mary’s have stretched their own style of teaching and research as well, the effect of Barstis and her infectious attitude. “She definitely paved the way for funded research at Saint Mary’s,” Paetkau said. “And when I say paved the way, she really took some of the hits. As we developed a grant to conduct research in Nepal, she took on the work of being part of the National Science Foundation review panel to get the experience and to really understand how to do this. There were many learning curves for the College to obtain and maintain grants—for the researchers and administration—and she pushed to see it through. Her hope was always that it would be easier for new faculty who want to do work with outside funding. And to this day, it is.”
She also went through the first patent process, questioned the College’s reliance on other institutions, and created internships at the College so students could stay on through the summer and learn here rather than going elsewhere for research. “Both of our departments—chemistry and biology—have changed because of her legacy,” Paetkau said.
Indeed, Barstis’s legacy at Saint Mary’s is deep and will impact generations of future scientists. In addition to helping hone the summer science research communities, she expanded the College’s 5-Year Dual-Degree Engineering Program with the University of Notre Dame, increasing the number of engineering students to record numbers. And she was instrumental in starting the STEM professional development series, empowering students in the sciences so they can secure jobs more easily upon graduation.
While she is quick to defer attention away from herself, particularly when it comes to accolades, she is proud of the relationship she helped forge with the University of Notre Dame for Saint Mary’s students interested in engineering. It is significant because students leave with two bachelor’s degrees—one from Saint Mary’s and one from the University of Notre Dame—and also because SMC graduates leave confident they are at the same professional level as those from a top-tier research institution.
“I tell them ‘You’ve done this; it’s yours. You’ve gone toe-to-toe with the students who graduate with the same degree at Notre Dame.’ We have been able to focus on this with all of our engineering students, and help them understand themselves, to negotiate for themselves, to become equals.”
The students who go through this program have the best of both worlds, she said. “They learn these incredible things at Saint Mary’s, have the ability to do research, learn to write. Then they can take advantage of the resources at Notre Dame. And they just love it. You remember being 18 to 22, the world is open to you! The energy, the excitement, the exhaustion, the dreaming. This program changed my life and I’m just really pleased with that. That tells me it was blessed. That’s what I love Saint Mary’s for.”
In her Fulbright year and beyond, Barstis says it’s finally time to focus on her own research, taking the PADs project further. Of the two paths, commercializing the devices and continued research, she chooses the latter because it helps get the technology in the hands of other inventors who can continue to develop it.
“It was always very ‘real-world’ application with her,” Bevilacqua said. Barstis encouraged students to think beyond the lab, to think of the end-user when conducting their research. “It is something that I think is unique in a lot of academic experiences, where research tends to be isolated in the bubble of the academic community. For those of us who studied at Saint Mary’s, taking this (PADs) technology and going further with it, is something we can do.”
“I’m proud of all my students, whether they’re chemistry or engineering students. They have an attitude that resonates with me, this ‘pay it forward’,” Barstis said. “I’ve been blessed to pay it forward, using my intelligence and stubbornness to make a difference. I’ve helped the students at Saint Mary’s, and that was so much fun.”
In the classroom with her own students, Bevilacqua carries with her the lessons she learned at Saint Mary’s and in Barstis’s lab. Her students choose an obstacle that exists in the medical world, then design and build a novel device to try to overcome it. “I try to create for them the same kind of opportunity that I had through Toni—to create something people could potentially utilize, to solve a real problem. She created something special at Saint Mary’s. We can all try to do that too.”