Passionate Problem-solvers

by Margaret Nilsson

There is no question that Margaret Scheuermann ’08 is at home in the lab. As a recent Scripps graduate, Margaret has already amassed an enviable scientific résumé. That résumé includes chemical research at four different laboratories in the U.S. and abroad and the presentation of her findings at two American Chemical Society national conferences. “Her creativity in designing key questions to ask in her research, her keen analysis of results, and practical eye to designing experiments that lead to unambiguous results” make her a top-notch research chemist, says Burke Scott Williams, assistant professor of chemistry.

Margaret wasted no time getting involved in research while at Scripps. In the summer following her freshman year, she embarked on an organic chemistry project despite the fact that she had not yet taken a course in organic chemistry. Under the guidance of Professor Tom Poon, she worked on a project that involved extracting shikimic acid from the seeds of a sweetgum tree. The acid is a key ingredient in the manufacture of a drug that combats the avian flu virus, and Margaret devised a novel method for extracting the acid. She made quite a stir when presenting the research at a national conference.

Wanting to explore other areas of chemistry before she narrowed her interests, Margaret next turned her attention to organometallic chemistry. A new and rapidly growing field, it involves the study of compounds containing bonds between metal atoms and carbon atoms. She was introduced to this type of chemistry through an organoplatinum project in the lab of Professor Williams. Having found her niche, Margaret subsequently performed further research in organometallic chemistry: in copper chemistry at the University of Washington and in uranium chemistry at the University of Edinburgh.

The contribution of organometallic chemistry to the development of alternative energy sources is what attracts Margaret to this field. She explains, “I consider energy to be the single biggest problem that our planet will face in the next century and organometallic chemists approach this problem from a wide variety of angles ranging from methanol fuels to hydrogen fuel cells to nuclear power to running industrial scale reactions more efficiently so they use less energy of any form.” While she realizes that no single chemist can solve the energy problem, she feels that research that leads to a better understanding of what metals can do will ultimately result in valuable new technologies.

On a lighter note, Margaret observes, “My daily lab routine involves liquid nitrogen. What more could I ask for out of work?” Margaret plans to continue her work in organometallic chemistry next fall in a doctoral program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Ivy McDanielIvy McDaniel ’08
makes a mean batch of fly food. A sticky mixture of molasses, yeast, cornmeal, agar, and a few chemicals, it is not unlike a homemade barbecue sauce for flies. A biology major, Ivy began working in the lab of Professor Jennifer Armstrong in her sophomore year. Initially she was assigned the task of head fly food chef for over 350 fly stocks in the Drosophila (fruit fly) lab. Realizing Ivy’s affinity for science, Armstrong quickly shifted her into a research position.

In the lab Ivy discovered a passion for biology—specifically genetics—and that passion translated into some remarkable work, according to Armstrong, assistant professor of biology. “What stands out about Ivy is that she’s truly gifted, not only when it comes to doing the hands-on research, but also when it comes to thinking about the biology behind the science.”

Armstrong’s lab, which focuses on how changes in chromosome structure impact gene activity in a developing organism, was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant was based largely on Ivy’s work, according to Armstrong, who states “Ivy has single-handedly made significant contributions to my laboratory.”

Ivy is the first author on a paper that was recently accepted by the journal Genetics, an extraordinary achievement for an undergraduate. She has also conducted research in laboratories at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In her junior year, she gave an award-winning presentation of her work at the Asilomar Chromatin and Chromosomes conference.

Ivy will spend next year in Bergen, Norway, on a Fulbright fellowship, conducting research at the Sars International Centre for Marine Molecular Biology. She will be studying the developmental genetics of tunicates, a marine animal closely related to vertebrates. Since the tunicate is similar to vertebrates in terms of its genome sequence and its developmental program, studying its development and comparing it to other organisms could yield important insight into what changes occurred when the vertebrate lineage first arose. After her research in Norway, Ivy will return to the States to attend UC Berkeley’s Molecular and Cell Biology PhD program.

Hannah Alberts Armed with a spatula and mason jars, physics major Hannah Alberts ’08 embarked on her first research project. Her mission: to capture Black Widow spiders for Professor Scot Gould’s physics research. Gould had invited her to participate in his study of Black Widow spider silk. First she had to catch the spiders—a delicate operation involving herding them into the jars. A dusty old storage shed at the colleges’ Bernard Field Station provided plenty of specimens. Back in the lab, Hannah spent the summer after her freshman year taking web samples. Using an atomic force microscope, she developed an innovative new technique for measuring the tension at different points in the web.

As a senior, Hannah applied her considerable research abilities to an entirely different aspect of nature—a cluster of stars called the Pleiades. During a visit to the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy (MIRA), Hannah collected data on the stars. Then began the months-long process of analyzing the data. Her research ended up being productive: she discovered that a particular star she was studying—Pleione—recently went through a major physical change. “Hannah combines very strong mathematical knowledge and skills with truly exceptional insight into physical problems,” Professor of Physics Steve Naftilan says of Hannah’s strengths as a physicist.

Hannah’s talents go beyond physics. She was widely known at Scripps as a student of multiple interests and skills. With a physician mother and an artist father, it is no wonder that Hannah is talented across the arts and sciences. Hannah took her painting class at Scripps as seriously as her statistical mechanics course. Her introduction to the Russian language sophomore year led her to spend a semester in St. Petersburg as a junior.

Next year Hannah will be teaching English at a university in Petrozavodsk, Russia (just north of St. Petersburg), as a Fulbright Scholar. Ultimately, she plans to integrate her different interests. While Hannah doesn’t intend to pursue pure science, she is interested in how science intersects with society. Having developed a sense of social activism at Scripps, Hannah hopes to engage in work involving the social impact of science, possibly international environmental policy or sustainable architecture and design. An MFA in painting is a possibility, too. No matter what Hannah chooses, she values her strong background in the sciences: “Studying science has affected the way I approach problems in all aspects of my life. It has given me an analytical problem-solving skills set that is infinitely valuable.”

On Thursday evenings, friends knew where to find chemistry major Claire Knezevic ’08 and it wasn’t in the lab. Claire would be in the kitchen of the Malott Commons baking challah. In fact, Claire co-founded with several other Claremont Colleges students the phenomenally successful charity organization, Challah for Hunger, at Scripps. All of the revenue from the organization—some $35,000 at this point—goes to help refugees of the genocide in Darfur. It turns out that baking, especially for a good cause, was the perfect way to take a break from lab.

What stands out about Claire, according to Assistant Professor of Chemistry Anna Wenzel, is that she is an exceptionally well-rounded scientist. It’s not often the case, Wenzel suggests, that someone so competent in science would be equally at home as a student leader and activist.

Claire Knezevic loved the idea of chemistry even before she formally studied the subject. A precocious science student in high school, she enrolled in two years of chemistry and then announced to her teacher that she wanted to study carbon nanotubes for her senior independent study project. Though the school wasn’t equipped for such advanced work, her teacher gave her some laboratory manuals from which to choose experiments. Thus began her enduring love for lab work.

In college, at the suggestion of a Joint Science Department faculty member, Claire took organic chemistry—a course usually taken only by sophomores and upperclass students—her freshman year. She loved it: “It’s like an extremely nuanced puzzle,” Claire reports. She went on to become a leader and mentor among the department’s chemistry students, and she co-founded the American Chemical Society student club of the Joint Science Department.

In 2007 Claire received a coveted Goldwater Scholarship for exemplary work and potential in the sciences. As a senior, she produced a thesis of PhD-level quality. Claire is now looking forward to continuing her study of chemistry in a doctoral program. Accepted at Caltech, MIT, Stanford, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Claire has chosen to attend the University of Illinois, where she found a department most compatible with her research interests. It’s a safe bet that Claire will make her mark there, too, as a scientist and a leader among her peers.


« »