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Famous Scientist's Legacy Gift Leaves Mark on Chemistry Students

(l-r) Aeli Olson ’17, Keenan Pearson ’17, Alyssa Clements ’17, and Jennifer Neufeld ’17 are the first students to receive the Holman Scholarship.

This spring, Alyssa Clements ’17, Jennifer Neufeld ’17, Aeli Olson ’17, and Keenan Pearson ’17 will become the first Holman Scholars to graduate—carrying the legacy of renowned chemist Ralph T. Holman '37 to a new generation of scientists. “I’ve definitely felt his impact,” Olson says of Holman, for whom Bethel’s chemistry laboratory is named.

The Ralph and Karla Holman Endowed Scholarship is one of the reasons Olson was able to major in chemistry. Olson declared a physics major in her first year at Bethel, but also took chemistry courses to keep her options open for pursuing a medical career. After working with her in class, Professor of Chemistry and Pre-Medical Advisor Wade Neiwert encouraged Olson to double major. Olson was moved by his enthusiasm, but had concerns about cost. However, immediately after taking Neiwert’s advice and declaring a second major in chemistry, Olson was awarded the Holman Scholarship. “It was affirmation and encouragement to keep pursuing both,” she says.

Though Holman has made a huge impact on Bethel’s Department of Chemistry and its students, he was relatively unknown among members of the Bethel community for many years. “Ralph Holman kind of came out of nowhere,” Rollin King, department chair and professor of chemistry, says. After graduating from Bethel in 1937, Holman hadn’t stayed engaged in the community. So, when he wrote a letter to the chemistry department detailing his donation plans in 1991, faculty were more than a little surprised. Holman and his wife, Karla, were making a large donation to Bethel, and had included an even larger donation for a Bethel chemistry endowment fund in their will.  

In his letter, Holman explained that memories of his time as an undergraduate student had a powerful influence over his life and career. “Without help from Bethel, I could not have earned an education which has brightened my life,” he wrote. “Without the guidance of a dedicated faculty and the support of such a Christian community, I may not have succeeded in finding my way to a place where I, in turn, could help others.”

Holman came from humble beginnings and relied upon financial aid from Bethel to obtain his degree. In the years following, he studied and named the omega-3 fatty acids, and was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 1981. He was an avid researcher—publishing over 425 papers—and a passionate Christian. His naming of the omega-3 fatty acids combined his biochemical and biblical knowledge, drawing inspiration from Revelation 1:8, “I am the Alpha and the Omega…” to “propose a new numbering system beginning with the terminal end of the fatty acid molecule,” according to his biography on the National Academy of Sciences website.

At Homecoming in 1998, Bethel appointed Holman a distinguished alumnus, and he received many other national and international accolades during his lifetime. He lived to be 94, and attributed his longevity to his high consumption of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish (and fish oil). Upon his death in 2012, Bethel became the beneficiary of the endowment funds—and the Holman Scholarship was born.

“I think it’s wonderful for the students to have a real connection—a financial one—to a great Christian scientist who went before them and made this gift,” King says. The Holman Scholarship is a need-based, renewable, $1,000 yearly scholarship that students can apply for online. Since fall 2013, the Bethel chemistry department has awarded four incoming students yearly. The 2016-2017 school year brought the first full roster of Holman scholars—16 in all.

But the Holman scholars aren’t the only members of the chemistry department who feel the impact of Holman’s donation. The funds that Holman and his wife first gave to Bethel in 1991 were placed in an endowment that has since been used to support students’ travel and expenses at the American Chemical Society National Meeting. This year, nine seniors traveled to San Francisco, where they attended lectures and presented their own research. “[Holman] was constantly working with publications as well as setting up meetings for scientific collaboration—he was really passionate about that,” Holman Scholar Pearson says. “So that’s fun that his money is going toward us being able to attend and learn from these meetings.”

From being able to engage in scientific collaboration at the national meeting, to receiving individual financial support, both Pearson and Olson say Holman has made a difference in their lives. They also hope to give back in a similar way someday. “Because of all the scholarships and financial aid that I’ve received at Bethel, when I’m older and have financial assets and am financially stable, I do want to give back and make scholarships,” Olson says. “I think that would be really awesome to help other students have the same experience.” Pearson agrees, adding “I’d love to help someone else [learn from] the great professors who work here.” In this way, Holman’s gift is a legacy that will not only keep giving on its own—but snowball as it inspires others.

If you would like to create or contribute to an academic endowment fund, please contact the Office of Development at development@bethel.edu or 651.635.8050.

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