New fund expands opportunities for pre-health and chemistry students

St. Olaf Regent Greg Buck ’77 (left) honors Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Wesley Pearson ’54 at an event for alumni and friends held in May.

During his career, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Wesley Pearson ’54 guided thousands of Oles through St. Olaf College’s chemistry and pre-health programs. In May, more than 230 alumni and friends gathered to recognize Pearson and the impact of his efforts — and they also announced that they had raised $1.36 million to support the study of chemistry and the pursuit of careers in health at St. Olaf.

The Wes and Rae Pearson Endowed Fund for Pre-Health and Chemistry will help increase student participation in professional pathways programs and faculty-mentored undergraduate chemistry research — elements essential for students to consider and pursue careers in science and health. It will also support updates to laboratory instrumentation and other chemistry department needs.

Earnings from the fund will be matched in part by St. Olaf’s Strategic Initiative Match program; the combined earnings will generate $80,000 annually for these priorities.

These gifts are part of For the Hill and Beyond, St. Olaf’s $200 million comprehensive campaign to advance high-impact academic practices, strengthen community, enhance the affordability of a St. Olaf education, and sustain the college’s mission.

Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Wesley Pearson ’54 guided thousands of Oles through St. Olaf’s chemistry and pre-health programs.

St. Olaf Regent Greg Buck ’77 and his wife Lisa Nave Buck ’77 committed $500,000 to the Wes and Rae Pearson Fund and challenged their fellow alumni to add gifts to match their contribution. Hundreds did, citing the guidance and close instruction Wes provided, especially for Oles working through organic chemistry.

“One alum noted that organic chem is like the ‘sorting hat’ for pre-health majors. That was true for me,” shares Buck, now president at Productivity, Inc. “Two semesters of organic taught me I should study something else. But Wes still took a personal interest in me as he did every student.”

“Wes was the best teacher I ever had throughout my education,” says chemistry major Dan Syrdal ’68, who contributed similarly to the fund. “He was also the most important person to my professional development — all the way through my Ph.D. in organic chemistry, my J.D., and my legal career in environmental law and biotechnology development.”

In addition to organic chemistry and mentored research, pre-health vocational training was a strong priority for Pearson. When he joined the St. Olaf faculty in 1958, no pre-professional program existed for pre-health majors. In response Pearson founded the college’s Health Professions Committee, and its unified letter of recommendation was widely adopted by schools nationwide. He also devised and launched The Physician in Clinical and Hospital Health Care, an Interim shadowing and vocation program presented in partnership with Fairview Health Services. Following Pearson’s model, St. Olaf provides similar opportunities at Mayo Clinic, Hennepin County Medical Center, and Allina Health. Additional programs were launched in 2016-17 at Northfield Retirement Center and Three Links Care Center.

These programs are especially important as they increase inclusion in the health field. Historically such opportunities were only available to students who had physicians in their family or social networks — this often excluded first generation, working class, and multicultural students.

More than 230 alumni and friends gathered in May to honor Wes Pearson — and they also announced that they had raised $1.36 million to support the study of chemistry and the pursuit of careers in health at St. Olaf.

“We felt the need to help students who are interested in the health profession,” Pearson has said. “I don’t think anyone should go to a professional program like medical school and not be absolutely sure that it’s for them.”

Through these programs, Oles are well-sought by professional schools — within three years of graduation, 75 percent of Oles applying to medical school in 2011-16 were admitted, outpacing a national average of 47 percent. According to the National Science Foundation’s most recent Survey of Earned Doctorates, St. Olaf ranks 12th overall among 263 baccalaureate colleges by the number of graduates who go on to earn doctoral degrees, ranking very high in biology and the life sciences, medical sciences, and chemistry, among other fields.

“This fund will make a tremendous difference for our students — absolutely,” says Leslie Moore ’77, director of the Piper Center for Vocation and Career, which coordinates the pathways programs.

Chemistry Department Chair Beth Abdella ’82 says “We deeply appreciate the support so many Oles have provided. This will allow us to teach in the best-equipped academic laboratories we can provide and engage more students as researchers.”

As of April 30, donors have generously given more than $147.7 million to For the Hill and Beyond. Anyone who would like to add to the Wes and Rae Pearson Endowed Fund, or make another gift of their own, can contact St. Olaf’s Development Office or go to its giving site.