There are many ways to find yourself in a laboratory embarking upon a research career. Some dream of being a scientist from their childhood, mail-ordering chemicals to start a basement lab. Some divert course from the unforgiving pre-medicine track, or chance upon the joys of the bench during a summer internship. Once a student reaches the laboratory, the choices only multiply, as rotations and coursework guides them to their eventual home in a field such as biology or physics.
The diverse roads taken to a science career – and the side paths taken thereafter – are nicely portrayed in a series of profiles done by Steve Koppes in the University of Chicago News Office. To flesh out July’s announcement that 51 University of Chicago students received fellowships from the National Science Foundation, Steve traced the trajectory of three student fellows on their way to UChicago research projects in neuroscience, genetics, and mathematics. Accompanied by gorgeous photos from Dan Dry, who can make any routine laboratory implement look glamorous, the stories are simple vignettes of how promising young researchers get their start.
Nora Tramm, Physics: The daughter of an anesthesiologist and a biology teacher, Tramm originally hoped to be a paleontologist studying dinosaur fossils. Instead, she’s studying glowing microscopic worms named C. elegans in an effort to learn about the neuroscience of sleep. “We should be able to correlate the activity of a neuron to the actual behavior of the worm in a very non–intrusive way,” Tramm said. “The ultimate goal would be to reverse–engineer what the nervous system is doing to produce the behavior.”
Nicole Tuttle, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology: Two major news events – the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Supreme Court ruling against the University of Michigan on affirmative action – inspired Tuttle to join Teach for America. In the program, Tuttle taught earth and physical sciences to 6th-graders in Atlanta before beginning work in the laboratory of Joseph Piccirilli in 2008, studying RNA processing. “I really loved teaching. It was fantastic to bring science to the new generation,” she said. For now, “I just want to do good science here and see where it takes me.”
Robin Walters, Mathematics: Before coming to the University of Chicago, Walters already had a dream job working for the Pixar animation studio, creators of Toy Story, Up!, and Wall-E. But he returned to his undergraduate love of advanced mathematics and embarked upon a project studying “the representation theory of quantum groups,” which, well, I’m going to have to plead ignorance on. “The incredible elegance of the topic motivated me to pursue further studies of representation theory in graduate school,” Walters said.
Photos by Dan Dry.