Merrimack College

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Students learn there’s more to science than medicine

Chemistry and microbiology students left their classrooms for a field trip to a New Hampshire winery recently where they learned how vintners put science to work making a nice shiraz or merlot.

Bubble 1: Science students see science at work in vineyard

Bubble 2: Single cell organisms power the fermentation process

The field trip also gave students and faculty a chance to bond outside the classroom.

“It was great to get to know the kids in a less formal, laid back atmosphere,” said Chemistry Department assistant professor Jimmy Franco.

About 38 students led by Franco, Biology Department assistant professor Charlotte Berkes, School of Science and Engineering Dean Allan Weatherwax, mathematics associate professor Brandy Benedict and chemistry department Office Manager Lauri Gibbons visited LaBelle Winery in Amherst, N.H. to study the science behind wine making.

“I think, especially in small schools, it’s about giving students experiences,” Franco said. “And this was an experience.”

Winemaker Amy LaBelle told the students the winery is her second career. She was an attorney working for Fidelity Investments and living in South Boston when she vacationed at Nova Scotia and toured a winery in 2001 where she had an epiphany of sorts and realized she really wanted to make wine.

She started making wine in her apartment and studied the art of winemaking through the University of California, Davis’ distance learning program. LaBelle then began making apple wine at an orchard in Walpole, N.H. and continued growing from there, to the point she and her husband Cesar Arboleda opened LaBelle Winery, Bistro Restaurant and Event Center in 2010.

LaBelle showed the students how she controls the fermentation process to get the taste just right. Vintners can measure the sugar levels in their wines so when the time is right they can strain the yeast.

“With the cells in there it looks more like Blue Moon with the thick hoppiness,” Franco said.

“The chemistry really evaluates the wine, testing it for consistency, if you try to hit a certain level of sugars, a certain level of molecules so when you have a batch people know what they are going to get,” Franco said.

The chemistry department organized the trip but the fermentation process uses single-cell organisms, which was an excellent real-life lesson for microbiology students, Berkes said.

Brianna O’Donnell ’16 is a biology major with a minor in chemistry. The trip helped her put her classwork into perspective and underscored what a large role microbes play in the world but it also expanded her understanding of career opportunities.

“I felt that this trip was valuable and it helped me learn about a different career path that I would have never thought was so related and heavily influenced by microbiology,” she said.

That is the sort of lesson Berkes wanted the students to take from the trip.

“There are a lot of careers that students don’t necessarily consider other than the obvious careers like doctor and physician’s assistant,” she said. “So I hope at the very least they would at least briefly entertain the thought, ‘I can use my background for other industries.’”

Franco wants to make a similar field trip for students next year and there have been preliminary talks about incorporating winemaking into the curriculum.

“One of my hopes is we’ll be able to start setting up internships at non-traditional sites,” Franco said. “A lot of brewers and wineries have internships.”


By Office of Communications