Branching out of Farr Hall

By: JJ Grinde 

Emily Cliff ‘17 spent the majority of her summer at Princeton University in New Jersey, working in the lab of Tom Muir, the Chair of Princeton’s Department of Chemistry. Working directly under second-year MD/PhD student Krupa Jani in the Muir lab, Cliff spent the summer trying to create different versions of the same protein to study how it would interact with a different protein. Specifically, she utilized solid-phase peptide synthesis to create modified histone H3, a protein that DNA wraps around inside the nucleus of the cell. Cliff credits her coursework and lab work at Ripon with preparing her to fundamentally understand what she was working on, but also points out that you do not need to know everything starting out. “Anyone who is going to do a summer experience like this is going to spend the first week learning what you’re doing. Ripon gave me the foundation to learn everything else.” Cliff advises other prospective researchers to take the time to prepare a solid application, saying, “It takes a lot of practice to learn how to phrase things and how to really sell yourself.” The experience also taught her to not be afraid of constructive criticism, and she learned the delicate skill of reading scientific papers with a critical eye. That is not to say her summer was only spent in the lab. She was able to visit Seth McDonald ‘17, who was doing bioinformatics research at Boston University, as well as watch fireworks and other Fourth of July celebrations in Philadelphia.

Robert Enright ‘17 was able to conduct his research at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, working at the Soft Materials Research Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He worked under Professor Sean Shaheen, along with graduate students ranging from chemistry and physics, to material science and electrical engineering. Enright worked to answer whether a new process, called microplotting, could be a worthwhile pursuit in the manufacturing world. At the conclusion of the program, the answer appeared to be yes. However, it took a lot of work to get there. “The first three weeks, I had zero success of anything. At the beginning of the seventh week, I was looking at the data and thinking, ‘This just does not look promising at all.’” Before a scheduled meeting with his principal investigator (PI), Enright took a moment to step back and review the data. He thought of an experiment, ran it, and wound up breaking the lab record for charge mobility in a semiconductor. “That was seven weeks of absolutely nothing, just pure frustration,” said Enright, “and then I finally got a hit. I found something.” The lessons he learned are that you should not be so quick to give up on a project, and that sometimes you need to sit back and look at what is right in front of you. Outside of the lab, Enright was able to raft down the Colorado River with his lab group, explore Boulder, and go on his first overnight backpacking trip. “It’s sort of self-finding to be out alone. I think everyone on their first backpacking trip has some moment when they ask…‘why am I in the middle of nowhere at night?’ But then again, it’s just so beautiful out there.” All in all, Enright had a successful summer at his program, learned more about where his own research interests lie, and developed more skills that will be used throughout his career.

Mitchell Eithun ‘17 spent his summer at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, where he worked under Professor Anne Shiu with funding from A&M’s Mathematical Biology REU. His work focused on modeling phosphorylation systems. He worked to convert large chemical reaction networks and systems of differential equations to analyze their dynamics and kinetics. “We were able to prove that a large class of these phosphorylation networks have one globally stable steady state,” said Eithun, “We can prove that with any starting configuration of chemicals, you’ll eventually reach a steady state.” The program also allowed him to meet other mathematically-oriented students from a range of schools, large schools such as Cornell and Minnesota, and smaller liberal arts colleges such as Pomona and Haverford. Eithun credits the program with instilling a greater confidence that he could go to graduate school if that turns out the be his desired path. “I learned about how to form a math paper. There are concise ways you can write your results, but you really want to write for understanding and be clear about the context of your results.” True to his word, his finished work, “An All-Encompassing Global Convergence Result for Processive Multisite Phosphorylation Systems,” was just submitted to The Journal of Theoretical Biology. Beyond the mathematics side of the summer, Eithun was able to bond with other participants over games of Scrabble, which they played nearly every night, see the new movie about the mathematician Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity, and celebrate the summer at a pool party hosted at one of the professor’s homes.

Rylie Morris ‘19 may have had only a single year of coursework under her belt, but that did not seem to hold her back in the organic chemistry lab of Ripon’s own Dr. Patrick Willoughby. The project she worked on involved dramatically increasing the efficiency of making a specific catalyst. Essentially, Morris wanted to make something that usually takes an unusually long time to make, so she sought to decrease that required time. A catalyst that once took two to seven days to make has been shortened to six hours. The experience of conducting full-time research was certainly eye-opening. Morris said, “Now I actually have an idea of what research is like and what research is. I’m still trying to decide if I want to go for a more medical or research-based career. It really helped me to develop an idea of what a career in this field would be like.” She offered her own advice for prospective researchers who are interested in getting started. “Get to know your professors. If you’re interested in research, just go talk to them. Just go into their office and say, ‘Hey, what are you working on?’ You’ll get an answer. Don’t be scared; they like talking about their work.” Beyond Farr Hall, Morris also was able to get to know many of the other student researchers, professors, and the work they were doing. Perhaps her favorite memory of the summer was being able to take the controls of Professor Joe Hatcher’s airplane as they flew above Ripon and the surrounding area. In total, Morris was able to see firsthand what the day-to-day operations of an organic chemistry lab was like, explore an interesting project, and have a better feel for what goals she may want to pursue in the future.