Florida Atlantic: Small Classes, Big Opportunities

Florida Atlantic: Small Classes, Big Opportunities

FAU Honors College Provides Worldclass Education at an Affordable Price

Nestled among oak trees in the seaside town of Jupiter sits Florida Atlantic University’s John D. MacArthur Campus. The campus is home to the Harriett L. Wilkes Honors College, one of the top-rated public honors colleges in the country, offering students a world-class honors education at an affordable public university price.

Unlike other public university programs, the Wilkes Honors College, which opened in 1999, is freestanding and self-contained, which means all faculty are dedicated solely to the college, and students can complete the entirety of their liberal arts and sciences coursework within the honors college curriculum. With a total enrollment of approximately 600 students — double what it was in 2012 — and a faculty-to-student ratio of approximately 1:15, classes are small, and learning is pursued in formal and informal settings.

A central component to the Wilkes Honors College is real-world experience that prepares students for the next step in their education or career. Each year, more than 150 students complete internships in settings such as research labs, biotech companies, hospitals and pharmacies, schools and nonprofit organizations. Many of these opportunities allow the students to conduct original research that can have a real impact in areas like medicine, environmental conservation and understanding the human brain — and help them stand out from their peers when it’s time to take their next steps beyond the undergraduate level.

“Our local community and geographic landscape serve as a living laboratory of engaged learning,” said Justin Perry, Ph.D., dean of the Wilkes Honors College.

Students don’t have to travel far to access cutting-edge research labs. The FAU MacArthur Campus is the only place in the world where two top biomedical research organizations — the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience and The Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology — stand side by side. With the addition of the FAU Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute and easy access to FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, honors students have unmatched opportunities to work alongside world-renowned scientists in a variety of fields.

For instance, students can apply for the FAU Max Planck Honors Program, which provides exclusive enrichment opportunities, including courses taught or co-taught by Max Planck scientists and Florida Atlantic faculty. The curriculum includes an introductory “topics in neuroscience” course, career development workshops taught by preeminent scientists, and access to international symposia where students can interact with and present their research to Nobel laureates.

“Our Wilkes Honors College undergraduates have been instrumental to our lab’s success,” said Sarah Stern, Ph.D., Max Planck research group leader for integrative neural circuits and behavior. “They are incredibly motivated and knowledgeable and have helped us tremendously to move our projects forward. We feel honored to have the opportunity to work with them and be part of their scientific training.”

In addition to completing an internship, all Wilkes Honors College students must meet two other unique curricular requirements to graduate: study abroad and complete a thesis project under the direct supervision of a faculty mentor. Perry noted that at least half of all thesis projects are completed at an on-campus research facility or at FAU Harbor Branch.

“The Wilkes Honors College provides an extraordinary opportunity for high-achieving students to explore a wide range of intellectual interests,” Perry said. “We’re Owls. Owls are curious creatures. It’s that innate curiosity that will serve these students well into their future.”

Life-changing Experience

Working in a state-of-the-art research lab has a profound effect on the trajectory of students’ lives. Ianis Ciolacu, a senior in the college, was determined to become a medical doctor. His time in the lab of Kendall Nettles, Ph.D., at The Wertheim UF Scripps Institute opened his eyes to new possibilities in pursuing a career in health care. The Nettles lab studies treatment-resistant cancers, including prostate and breast cancers, in search of novel therapeutics to improve patient outcomes. Ciolacu is involved in a study of triple-negative breast cancer, looking for new ways to attack the cancer cells, as they do not respond to hormone therapies.

“I was very set on going to medical school,” Ciolacu said. “Having any sort of research, let alone one of the top institutions in the country on my CV, would look very good. But I’m more open to the opportunity now of pursuing research after undergraduate, whether it’s an M.D./Ph.D. program or even just a Ph.D. program for studying oncology.”

Wilkes Honors College student Michelle Gras is also studying cancer, in the lab of Shailaja Allani, Ph.D., director of FAU’s Center for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. Gras is experimenting with treatment combinations to help mitigate some of the detrimental side effects of a common chemotherapy drug. Like Ciolacu, Gras plans to pursue a career in medicine, but her undergraduate research experience has broadened her horizons to include looking for a position in a lab at the National Institutes of Health. She cites accomplishments like presenting her research at a conference in Seattle and, most importantly, being first author on a published paper as reasons why she is confident her resume will stand out among other applicants.

“I can go to a lab and say, ‘I have all these qualifications,’” Gras said. “Most people don’t have those qualifications coming out of undergrad.”

If you would like more information, please contact us at dorcommunications@fau.edu.