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Biological Chemistry

Advocating for Men’s Health

While life events have helped Ryan Brown ’16 shape his aspirations, he has largely carved out his own path toward fulfilling them.

“My dad is a pediatrician, so I was raised thinking I was going to be a doctor one day,” Brown says. “I didn’t really know where I wanted to go with that until my mom got breast cancer and I realized I really wanted to do something about it.”

Originally recruited from the Chicago area to play baseball for Grinnell, Brown is a biological chemistry major who’s become intensely focused on oncological research. He has spent the past three summers interning at University of Chicago research labs that deal primarily with late-stage prostate cancers.

“More specifically, cancers that don’t respond to the normal androgen deprivation therapies,” Brown says. “Our lab works with different genetic manipulation approaches to establish models for various stages of prostate cancer progression.” 

Motivated by Coach

Thankfully, Brown’s mother is a success story. Brown’s inspiration to study men’s cancers came from another survivor — Grinnell pitching coach Casey O’Rourke (2008-2013). An all-conference phenom in his first year at the University of Iowa, O’Rourke was sidelined as a sophomore by testicular cancer.

“[O’Rourke] kind of refined my interests into men’s cancers and testicular cancer,” Brown says. “After working with him in my first year I had this motivation to work with male cancers. I just cast the net out to cancer labs that were close by me and the prostate lab was one of them.”

Early Lab Experience

Brown’s efforts to secure an internship were entirely self-directed. He sold himself as a candidate for an unpaid internship in his first summer, and he returned in a paid capacity after his second-year science classes provided the requisite knowledge.

“My first summer in the lab I really knew nothing about biology and it was pretty difficult to catch up on what everyone else knew,” Brown says. “After my second year I came back and everything made sense.”

Brown also successfully advocated for two other Grinnell students, Matt Godinsky ’16 and Shane Comiskey ’18, to work in the lab — one in each of two consecutive summers.

Creating Awareness

Last November, Brown organized a group of 20 Grinnell students and staff to join with the lab’s Moustaches in Movember team in raising funds for men’s health issues through the Movember Foundation. Grinnell’s contingent raised $1,751 of the lab’s total of $6,816.

“It’s an awareness-type thing,” Brown says. “You see a guy with a ridiculous moustache and people are likely to say, ‘Hey, what’s up with that?’ You say, ‘Sorry, I look like an idiot, but it’s for a good cause. I’m raising money for men’s health issues through Movember.’ It’s awesome. It opens conversations.”

A Better Understanding

After graduation, Brown will be working full time in the lab where he’s interned the past three summers, driving his own projects and working to publish them. He says he’ll concentrate on research for a couple of years before applying to medical school.

“I want to be a translational physician scientist,” Brown says. “A physician who’s able to translate work between the lab and exam room gains a much better understanding of what their patients experience, as well as issues that interfere with treatment.”

Ryan Brown ’16, from Chicago, Ill., is a biological chemistry major with a concentration in neuroscience.

Chemistry Research Presented at National Meeting

Every spring, chemistry and biological chemistry students and faculty from Grinnell College present research discoveries at the American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meeting. This spring the meeting was in San Diego.

Eighteen students and six faculty participated in the poster session and many other events. For students, the meeting also provides an opportunity to network with alumni who have chosen careers in chemistry. 

Freedom to Explore

Josie Bircher ’16 came to Grinnell undecided about what field she was going to pursue. That has turned to inspired certainty, and she credits Grinnell’s individually advised curriculum with helping her chart her course.

A First-Year Tutorial is the only required class at Grinnell. With no general education requirements, students and their advisers have greater flexibility in building majors that serve students’ career and life goals. 

“Initially I just continued math because I was pretty good at it in high school and I found it challenging, so I wanted to keep that going,” Bircher says. “The open curriculum gave me the opportunity to explore different fields and individualize my coursework to make me more prepared for the field I want to go into.”

Confirmed Direction

Bircher’s first Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) in computational chemistry “confirmed that I like theoretical, quantitative sort of approaches,” she says. “Chemistry was on a little too small of a scale for me, so it helped to determine where I went next, which was more biochem — lots of chemical interactions combining into one. “

Her current MAP — using mathematical modeling to predict receptor activity in the brain — has further inspired her to look toward graduate school and a career in research.

Integration and Flexibility

“I’m drawing from my work in biochem, as well as the skills I learned in one of my applied math courses and in my probability and statistics course, too,” Bircher says. “That’s been sort of a theme in my coursework, to integrate all of the different things I take into one type of work.”

Bircher also appreciates flexibility in scheduling other activities. She is on Grinnell’s swim team and plays violin in the Grinnell Symphony Orchestra.

“In my first meeting with the swim coach I asked her if it was feasible to do both orchestra and swimming,” Bircher recalls. “She made it clear that she would be able to be in communication with the orchestra director, and that it would be easy for me to do everything I wanted to do in terms of my extracurricular activities.  

“Grinnell really seemed like the place where I could do everything I wanted to do,” Bircher says.

Grinnell Clicked

In deciding where to attend college, Queenster Nartey ’16 applied and was admitted to several major research universities in the Midwest.

“After visiting all those schools, Grinnell is the only one that clicked,” Nartey says.

The individually advised curriculum was a major incentive for Nartey. “Knowing that there is only one required class, the tutorial, I could basically shape my education however I wanted to,” she says.

Personalized Interests

“Yes, there are requirements for the major, but not every biochemistry major takes the exact same classes,” Nartey explains. “It’s very personalized. It’s appealing to me to basically wrap my major around things that I’m interested in.”

Nartey had intended to double in Spanish with a concentration in neuroscience, but dropped the idea. “I was pre-med, I wanted to study abroad, and as time went on I realized I didn’t want to spread myself too thin,” she says. “I wanted to focus on one thing and do it really well.”

Ultimately, she was able to take a Spanish class, and she combined her study abroad and neuroscience through the Danish Institute for Study Abroad program. Clinical experience in Copenhagen, along with research opportunities she capitalized on during her first two years, expanded both her medical and research horizons. “I didn’t have to give anything up at all,” she says.

Set Her Apart

Queenster Nartey ’16 testing copper surfaces for bacterial growth at a local hospitalNartey’s current MAP is focused on testing copper surfaces for bacterial growth in hospital environments. Her poster presentation on that study earned her accolades at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle last November.

“From the copper study, we wrote a paper that’s going to be published very soon, Nartey says. “As an undergraduate, having a published paper sets you apart from the crowd. It’s very exciting, and something I can highlight as a result of doing a MAP.”

Nartey says the experience will help her in applying for a National Institutes of Health postbaccalaureate fellowship and eventually for an M.D./Ph.D. program.

“Grinnell opened all these doors,” Nartey says. “Having the freedom to design my major and go abroad, having the encouragement from professors and other students and staff in a collaborative environment, is wonderful.

“I feel very good and very confident as a scientist, and it’s because of this individualized curriculum. It all comes down to that.”

 

Josie Bircher ’16 is a biological chemistry and mathematics double major from Omaha, Neb. Queenster Nartey ’16, a biological chemistry major, is from Chicago.

 

Double the Fun

At Grinnell, students are encouraged to find ways to pursue as many of their interests as they can. This can mean participating in clubs and athletics in addition to academics, but some students want to take their interests even further by declaring a double major.

A double major may seem overwhelming, but it’s actually very common for students to merge two seemingly unrelated interests into a major that fits their aspirations.

Becoming a better doctor

Micah Iticovici ’16 working at a table with books, papersMicah Iticovici ’16, a biological chemistry/economics double major, arrived on campus intending to be a philosophy major. However, he soon discovered an interest in biochemistry and the medical profession.

Then, during his Introduction to Economics course, he began to see an overlap between how economists study decision-making and how medical professionals and their patients interact.

“Patients are really not great decision-makers,” Iticovici says. “They make a lot of really small decisions without looking at the overall impacts of those choices.”

Using the principles he learned in economics, Iticovici has pursued independent research to try to gain a better understanding of how and why patients make decisions that aren’t in their best interests. By delving into behavioral economics with a medical spin, he hopes to be able to advise and relate to his future patients more effectively.

Combining economics with a medicine-oriented biochemistry major may be unexpected, but it has many practical applications. But a down-to-earth major like economics can add a lot to a major that is less logic-oriented as well.

The economics of art

Alex Neckopulos ’17 is a studio art/economics double major who was interested in art from a young age. Her talent was encouraged until high school, where she got very different feedback from her teachers. They viewed artistic pursuits as less valuable than math and sciences, and her interest in art faded.

Neckopulos regained her passion for art when she came to Grinnell, but she discovered that the analytical side she developed in high school was still calling. At first, the notion of combining her interests in art and economics seemed unrealistic. “Honestly I had no idea how they would work together! It felt like I was trying to stick a circle in a square hole,” Neckopulos says.

After taking a job as an assistant in the Faulconer Gallery, however, Neckopulos discovered that her knowledge of economic models and principles came in handy. “Working in a gallery, you have the art that you’re passionate about, but it’s also a business, and you have to know how to get people in the door and really manage your funds,” Neckopulos says.

She hopes to obtain an internship at a larger, public gallery in the future to see what it’s like to pursue those interests on a grander scale. “My advice to anyone who has multiple interests would be to seek out that job that you think might combine them, because there’s nothing more eye-opening than applying what you learn to real life,” says Neckopulos.

Look for the overlap

“Double majors are really doable,” Iticovici adds. “You can combine anything and there will be some kind of overlap, as long as you’re willing to look for it. And that makes everything you learn more fulfilling and interesting.”

For Grinnell students, the ability to delve deeply into more than one subject helps to transform their varied interests into new, more fulfilling career paths. So if you’re having trouble deciding what you want to do, fear not! You just might be able to do it all.

Balanced Performance

Ever wonder about handling the rigors of both academics and athletics at Grinnell?

Fully one third of Grinnell’s student body participates in varsity athletics. And while many Grinnell students achieve big things in sports (search Jack Taylor 138), all Grinnell student athletes find their own way to combine passion for athletics with academic priorities.

Anushka Joshi ’18 holds tennis racket with book, balls balanced on topAnushka Joshi ’18 came to campus two weeks before classes to prepare for the fall tennis season. “Coach (Andy Hamilton ’85) sends us a workout schedule for summer, so he expects us to be in top form with our tennis as well as our fitness,” Joshi says. “The first two weeks we played five hours a day.”  

Joshi is among six to eight players on the squad of 20 who traveled most weekends and played every Saturday until fall break in October. This year, having built a 9-1 record in a tie for second place after fall conference play, the team will also have a short spring season before going to the 2016 NCAA automatic qualifier tournament.  

Joshi says sports at The British School in her native Nepal were not nearly as intense as they are at Grinnell. She handled her first year here fairly easily. But with 200-level courses this year, she questioned if she could pull it off all season.

“The first weekend, six of us played for six hours straight,” Joshi says. “I was thinking ‘can I do this every week?’ I had so much studying to do on Sunday. But, I mean, I couldn’t quit. We have seniors on our team doing biochem and they’re managing, so I thought to myself ‘I can do this, too.’”

Joshi says getting a head start on her reading and doing homework as soon as it is assigned are strategies for a workable balance.

“It’s a handful, but it’s fun,” Joshi says, “Definitely you have to focus on academics, because it is academics first at Grinnell.”

Joel Baumann ’18 says athletics and academics fit together well at Grinnell because “coaches here respect academics. They’re very clear on emphasizing that you are always a student first.”

Baumann runs cross country and specializes in the 800 meters during indoor and outdoor track seasons. Training is “pretty much continuous” with a two or three week break between each season. “For all intents and purposes, it’s year-long running,” he says.

This fall Baumann is combining a rigorous cross country regimen with macro economics, a 200-level poli sci course, French, and environmental studies. “We have an open curriculum and a wide variety of courses to choose from, so I’m able to schedule my day in a way that makes sense for me,” Baumann says.

On a typical day Baumann goes to class the entire morning, then works afternoons in the Admission office as overnight host coordinator for prospective male students. He takes an hour to relax or study before a two-hour practice that starts at 4:15 p.m. Following dinner with the team, his evenings are dedicated to homework for the next day.

Baumann says daily discipline “allows your body and your mind to adjust to doing certain things at certain times throughout the day.

“I enjoy being in athletics because it forces you to plan your day and develop good time management skills,” Baumann says. “You have to be really strict with your regimen.”

Anushka Joshi ’18 is from Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Nepal. She is considering computer science and economics as possible majors, and hopes to study abroad next year. Joel Baumann ’18, a native of Grinnell, intends to pursue a double major in political science and economics.

Novel Experience

Most students have to worry about finishing 20- or 30-page research papers or equally long essays in their final semester of college. Emily Mesev ’15 will hand in a 300-page novel.

Originally from Northern Ireland, Mesev considered attending a university in the United Kingdom but decided Grinnell would better accommodate her disparate interests in science and literature. She hadn’t thought of combining her interests until the idea she is fleshing out in her novel came to her.

The novel started as a short story in professor Dean Bakopoulos’ fiction seminar. Bakopoulos, a National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Fellow, is the Department of English’s writer-in-residence. He has published two acclaimed novels and has a third, Summerlong, which has already received advance praise from Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly, coming from Ecco Books in June.

He asked the students to write three different one-page openings to short stories. Mesev had been taking a plant physiology course at the time and wrote one opening about a photosynthetic human from the future and the scientist studying it.

Mesev and two other students completed a novella-writing Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) with Bakopoulos in the fall. At the end of the semester, Mesev realized she could take the story she wrote and the world she had created — an institute for the study of post-historic organisms from thousands of years in the future — further. Bakopoulos agreed. “I took the novella and pulled it apart, adding more detail and making a larger story,” says Mesev.

During the first half of the spring semester, Mesev completed the 78,000-word draft. “I’ve been spending a lot of time working on structure because this size of manuscript is new to me,” she says. Bakopoulos has been encouraging her to give the story more urgency. “That’s one thing I struggle with in my short stories too,” Mesev says.

Mesev has had ample opportunities to learn from Bakopoulos over the last few years. She has taken two fiction-writing courses and a creative nonfiction-writing course in addition to the novella MAP and her current novel-writing MAP with him.

Bakopoulos generally takes on three or four MAP students a year, offering promising students a chance to deeply immerse themselves in a project that goes far beyond traditional creative writing coursework. “It’s a chance for students to experience the obsessive kind of discipline and focused creativity that goes into the work for any published author,” he says.

“I feel lucky to have this opportunity. It’s a really great experience,” she says. “It’s impressive that he can make time to work on this with me.” They have been meeting once a week this semester. “He can give me a critique and send me off to generate 100-150 pages during spring break,” she says. “That helps me as well, so I have to discipline myself on top of getting feedback from him. That’s one of the most valuable things I’m getting from the MAP.”

Mesev draws from her experiences researching lung cancer at the University of Minnesota and blood cancer at the Mayo Clinic. “A lot of what I know about biomedical research comes from there,” Mesev says. She also credits Grinnell with giving her the background knowledge to invent the creatures in her novel and ground them in real science.

Mesev plans to pursue biomedical research immediately after graduating. After that, graduate school in the same field. As for her novel, “I want to polish up the first 50 pages and submit them to an MFA writing program.” She does hope that with further revision and rewriting she can “turn this manuscript into an actual novel.”

Emily Mesev ’15 is a biological chemistry/English major from Coleraine, Northern Ireland.

So You Want to Become a Doctor?

Grinnell College is a perfect springboard for students who plan to become future physicians, veterinarians, and other health professionals.

Grinnell students receive expert guidance from faculty and staff and rigorous courses that help them enter the nation’s top medical and graduate school programs. Factor in Grinnell’s liberal arts focus and diverse research and learning experiences here and abroad — Grinnell students are well prepared to enter the competitive programs of their choice.

“Sometimes prospective students and their families think that there is some great advantage to going to a big university where there’s a medical school, but there’s really no demonstrated evidence that’s the case,” says Dack Professor of Chemistry Jim Swartz.

Ninety percent of Grinnell graduates who applied to M.D. and D.O. programs with a grade-point-average of 3.6 or higher are accepted into medical programs within five years of graduation, according to data from 2002-2014.

Queenster Nartey ’16 is a biological chemistry major. Last summer she helped with the development and design of the user interface for an app that will allow Type 2 diabetics to learn how certain changes to their diet or exercise could affect their blood glucose levels. She enjoyed studying in Denmark where she worked with doctors who introduced her to hands on exercises like suturing, inserting and IV, and other techniques. She has also enjoyed working with a professor on a Mentored Advanced Project about the effects of copper alloy surfaces in minimizing the growth of bacteria in hospital settings.

“I have truly fallen in love with research and hope to pursue it with a combined M.D./Ph.D. program after graduation,” she says.

Grinnell faculty and staff begin working with students as soon as they show an interest in a health profession to help them get the most out of their four years at Grinnell.

  • Students receive an introduction to the Health Professions Advisory Committee (HPAC), which assists students who are considering a health career and need an advanced degree.
  • Faculty help students plan which courses to take.
  • Students interact with the Center for Careers, Life, and Service, which offers preprofessional advising, job shadowing, internships, graduate school guides, dedicated computers that contain medical school requirements, and career preparation books.

A peer student network, Students on Health Oriented Tracks (SHOT) works with students and collaborates with the HPAC.

  • SHOT leaders strive to know the program entry requirements to medical, dental, and pharmacology schools. They explain to students how to get recommendations and how best to navigate the process.
  • SHOT regularly brings experts to campus such as veterinarians, midwifes, and others.

So You Want to Become a Doctor, Veterinarian, Physician Assistant or …

There’s an abundance of graduate programs in a variety of areas beyond just medical school. Selective programs look favorably upon students who take rigorous courses, study abroad, and have a liberal arts background, says Shannon Hinsa Leasure, associate professor of biology.

Medical schools and graduate level programs want well rounded students who engage in diverse learning experiences here and abroad, Hinsa Leasure says.

  • Students can apply to Off Campus Study programs to gain field experience and work with health professionals in Denmark, Costa Rica, and beyond.
  • Grinnell College students can participate in the Master of Public Health Cooperative Degree program while at Grinnell. The cost of the program completed while at Grinnell is covered under tuition. For the remaining year, students will pay tuition at the University of Iowa.
  • Students can become certified nursing assistants and work in local facilities in Grinnell to obtain the number of patient contact hours they need for some health graduate programs.
  • Research opportunities abound in campus laboratories.
  • Alumni generously offer their time to advise students about program requirements and provide them with real-world information.

“It’s important to be open-minded when thinking of health professions — students likely have not been exposed to all of the options available and it is important to find the right fit for each student,” says Hinsa Leasure. “The experiences you have in your classes here and doing research may change your mind about your future career. We try to prepare students for things that they do not anticipate upon arriving at Grinnell, but get interested in along the way.”

Artemis Gogos ’14 is pursuing an M.D/Ph.D. in a medical scientist training program at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She says laboratory experience at Grinnell solidified her plan to pursue a career in research, and participating in an off campus study program in Costa Rica convinced her also to pursue a medical degree.

Prospective students who are considering a career in the health professions should focus on getting a wide variety of experiences during their four years at Grinnell, Gogos says.

“Accept all opportunities that come your way. Every decision you make will shape your perspective in a new way, and you will start to see a multitude of possibilities in the field of health care,” she says.

Artemis Gogos ’14, Lincoln, Neb.
Queenster Nartey ’16, Chicago, Ill.

Recent Art History Grads Make Good

Two recent art history grads move forward in their post-B.A. professional lives.

This summer Tianhan Gao ’11 (left) 

…became the associate cataloguer for the Classical Chinese Paintings Department at the art auction house Sotheby’s International in New York. Tianhan came to Grinnell in 2007 as an international student from China. She double-majored in bio-chemistry and art history. After graduation she took an internship at Samuel T. Freeman & Co. Auctioneers in Philadelphia, and then worked her way up to department assistant, property manager, and associate specialist of Asian art in three years before being hired this summer by Sotheby’s.

This fall José Segebre ’09 (right) 

…begins an M.A. program in curatorial studies at the Städelschule and Goethe Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. José came to Grinnell in 2005 as an International Merit Scholar from Honduras without (in his words) “the slightest idea that he would leave with a degree in art history.” He has since been involved with different art projects in Mexico City, his city of birth, and a self-sustainable art community in Portugal, and has also worked as assistant curator at the exhibition hall for contemporary art, Portikus, in Frankfurt. He is currently helping to organize an international symposium about contemporary Muralism that will take place in October at the cultural center riesa efau in Dresden, Germany.

Rewards of Research

“It’s really valuable to do research outside of your classroom lab,” says Emily Stuchiner ’15, a biology major with a concentration in environmental studies. She worked on a research project at Columbia University in New York. “If you’re an aspiring biologist or scientist, this is the springboard for what your future endeavors could look like.”

With funding provided by the College, a half-dozen Grinnell students worked in labs across the country. The internships allow them to gain expertise in their chosen fields and expand their career options.

Research in a Lab at Iowa State University

Queenster Nartey ’16 in the labQueenster Nartey ’16, a biological chemistry major, developed an app that will allow Type 2 diabetics to learn how certain changes to their diet or exercise could affect their blood glucose levels. Nartey designed the app’s user interface and wrote its computer code at Iowa State University’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

“Studies have shown that people are more likely to take more action when they see immediate results,” she says. “By having this hypothetical case of what their blood glucose could have been if they altered these activities, they would be more likely to change those behaviors.”

Research in New York’s Black Rock Forest

As Stuchiner meandered through the picturesque Black Rock Forest in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson, N.Y., she carried a bag filled with the scientific equipment she used to collect air and leaf litter samples. Back in Columbia’s lab, she analyzed the materials. During her 10-week research project, she studied how oak disease affects the forest’s tree species.

“I’ve definitely learned what a long-term science project is like. This is the longest science project I’ve worked on,” she says. “It’s really exciting to see it all come together.”

Value of Off-campus Research

The projects have both students considering professional degrees.

Nartey says her research has bolstered her confidence, critical thinking skills, and problem-solving skills.

“It’s making me strongly consider medical research as a possibility that blends both doing research and studying something important to the medical field,” she says.  

Stuchiner has learned how to conduct a well-run experiment, the benefits of a well-funded lab, and experienced some surprises, she says.

“What’s really surprising is how utterly and thoroughly exhausting fieldwork is,” she says. “You really need to love what you’re doing.”

Both students agree their summer research projects will enhance their classroom experience.

“This opportunity has given me the extra drive and motivation I need to focus on successfully completing the next two years of my Grinnell education,” says Nartey.

Emily Stuchiner ’15, a biology major with a concentration in environmental studies, is from New York. Queenster Nartey ’16, a biological chemistry major, is from Chicago.