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From LVC to Johns Hopkins: A Q&A with Gary Lam '09, Eric Weir '09, and Allix Sanders '10
04.04.14 |
Several recent Valley graduates furthered their science careers through their acceptance into the prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH) Post-Baccalaureate Fellowship Program. Dr. Wally Patton, LVC associate professor of chemistry and director of biochemistry & molecular biology, has been a strong advocate for the program since arriving to teach at LVC in 1999. Patton was a NIH Post-Doctoral Fellow, first as a National Research Council (NRC) Fellow (the NRC is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences) and later an NIH Staff Fellow after completing his Ph.D. at Lehigh University. He mentored more than a half-dozen students in the NIH Post-Baccalaureate Program during his six years at the NIH.

“My post-doctoral advisors knew that I wanted to become a faculty member at a predominantly undergraduate institution and allowed me to recruit and do the day-to-day mentoring of these students,” Patton says. “The NIH environment is challenging, but incredibly stimulating, and made me a better scientist. You have access to exceptional resources and the connections you make there to scientists from around the world can last a lifetime.” Patton notes that the opportunities even extend beyond the laboratory. “I attended lectures by Nobel laureates, even one by Sir Ian Wilmut shortly after his laboratory cloned “Dolly” the sheep. The potential career benefits of engaging in this program are intangible and I do my best to lead promising LVC students toward this opportunity.”

The NIH program is often a stepping stone for graduate school or medical school, but for those who choose to enter industry, they quickly find themselves leading the efforts of their research teams.

Jordan Newell ’05, Julia Cupp Morrow ’07, Krista Wisner ’08, Gary Lam ’09, Eric Wier ’09, Stephanie Thomas ’10, and Nate Hepler ’13 have all completed the NIH Post-Baccalaureate Fellowship. Two of these graduates—Lam and Wier—as well as a third LVC graduate—Allix Sanders ’10—are currently pursuing doctoral degrees at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. LVC’s connection to Hopkins dates back to at least YEAR when Woodrow S. Dellinger ’62 was the director of Hopkins’ master of health science program, and several other LVC graduates have worked at or earned graduate degrees at Hopkins.

Lam was a biochemistry & molecular biology major at the Valley who participated in undergraduate research with Patton. As his graduation approached, Lam wasn’t sure whether to apply to medical school or pursue a research career, so when Patton suggested that he pursue the post-baccalaureate position at NIH, Lam thought it would be a good way to help him make up his mind. “I applied to the fellowship and landed a position, and so I spent two years getting additional laboratory experience and eventually settled on the fact that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D.,” Lam says.

Wier also studied biochemistry & molecular biology at LVC, and also participated in research with Patton before taking on a post-baccalaureate position at NIH. Now a fourth-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins, Wier ultimately plans to pursue a career that combines research with teaching. “I’d like a position at a college like Lebanon Valley where I can follow in the footsteps of Dr. Patton,” he said. “He does research, but he also gets to introduce college students to that research and get them excited about it.”

Unlike Lam and Wier, Sanders went straight to Johns Hopkins without a sojourn at the NIH. A chemistry major at LVC, Sanders also ran track and pitched for two years on the women’s softball team. Currently pursuing a Ph.D. in organic materials chemistry, Sanders hopes to complete her degree during the summer of 2015, after which she hopes to continue her studies in an academic post-doctoral position. “My current long-term plan is teaching chemistry at a small undergraduate institution like LVC,” she says.

Gary Lam ’09

How did you acquire your competitive spirit?

In the academic setting, I’m certainly a very competitive person. I always aim to be the person who people would remember in terms of quality. So I try my best and my hardest competition would be to top myself.

What motivates you?
To push myself to the limit has always been a life goal. I don’t like wasting this limited time we have on settling for lower targets. I try to be better every day.

What activities, people, or courses at LVC helped you prepare for success?
Classroom size—the individual attention—is by far number one on the list. I enjoyed the classes, the setting, but honestly the number one thing was the individual attention. The fact that I could approach Dr. Patton or any of the instructors and have my questions answered. They knew who I was. I wasn’t one in 2,000 students.

The foundation that I received at LVC, the working environment, and that student-professor relationship are very similar to the relationships I have at Hopkins, so I feel at home here. I constantly refer back to the knowledge and experience that I acquired at Lebanon Valley, and it was pretty easy to transition to graduate school having graduated from LVC.

How has global competition changed your field?
It’s definitely a concern for every individual who’s interested in research, but it only makes me work harder and drives me to seize opportunities. I’m even more driven to complete some fantastic research and grab that coveted funding and a lab that I want. Nothing really changes except I probably have redoubled my efforts to finish and make an impact on the world.

What’s most important to remain competitive in your field?
I believe that in order to remain competitive in science you have to be able to network. I hope that by being at Hopkins, one of the top universities for research, that I’ll establish a larger network.

How do you prepare physically and mentally for competition?
I like to think that every day will generate new goals and new problems. I prepare each morning and actually look forward to those surprises.

What is your favorite book about competition?
If anything, everything I read is competition right now. Every article you pull up is written by somebody who may be competing with you. These people publish fantastic things that I would not have foreseen. Every time I pull up an article in “Nature” or “Science,” it’s competition for me.

Who is your favorite competitive role model?
I believe my role model, if I wanted it to be all encompassing, would be a principal investigator at a university. I always look up to those who mentored me—those are the people who drive me. At some point in my career I want to be able to come back to them and show that they made it possible for me.

Do you have a guiding philosophy about competition?
As long as I continue to improve myself, I believe I can continue to remain competitive. To remain competitive, do not cut yourself short, but work hard. As long as I work hard I can remain competitive.

Which leaders inspire you, and why?
In my current research, it would be Dr. Bert Vogelstein. He’s the top investigator concerned with oncology, one of the most notable names at Johns Hopkins. His lab produces so much research year after year, and he is the leader in the field.

What makes LVC competitive?
For me, what makes Lebanon Valley competitive is that it offers a truly liberal arts education, where you’re not just learning to take the exam and get your degree, but you’re being refined as a person and as a future scholar or whatever you choose to pursue. That’s what attracts not just top high school students but students who are more focused on their own self-improvement.

What advice would you give to current LVC students?
I’d say they’re in the right place. Whatever they’re going to decide to do, there will be ups and downs, but you can’t be defeated by a simple obstacle—you can only be defeated by yourself. Making it to Lebanon Valley is just the first step, there will be a lot of difficult steps ahead, but if you’re self-motivated you can beat the obstacles that you will face.


Allix Sanders ’10

How did you acquire your competitive spirit?

I certainly was a competitive person—it showed in athletics as well as academics, but I guess participating in athletics gave me another outlet for my competitive nature. My parents never let me settle for just being good—they always wanted me to strive to be as good as I could be.

What motivates you?
I’m motivated by wanting to succeed in what I enjoy doing, rather than just being kind of mediocre. I’m always trying to be the best in the field at all times.

What activities, people, or courses at LVC helped you prepare for success?
Definitely the research I was able to do while I was in the Chemistry Department—I was able to start the summer following my freshman year and I was on the same project for the entire time I was at LVC. I learned how to conduct research and had the opportunity to present my research at national ACS [American Chemical Society] conferences. It made the transition into research at Hopkins much easier because I didn’t have to be trained in general lab technique—in fact I had about two more years of lab experience than most of the other people I’ve talked to here.

How has global competition changed your field?
As of yet, I haven’t seen much of it, but you can definitely see that chemistry in Germany and Japan is really competitive with American research right now. I just went to a conference in Taiwan where I met a lot of Chinese and Taiwanese scientists, and they all do really good work and work long hours, so it’s difficult to compete. As for jobs, the U.S. market is not terribly good, but that doesn’t apply to me yet, because I’m still in school and I’ll be in post-doc for the next three years or so.

What’s most important to remain competitive in your field?
Staying on track and staying motivated. Even when your project’s failing you have to maintain your motivation until you get to the point where everything’s going right. When things are going well, that’s when you want to work long hours and get a lot done. However, there are times when your research isn’t going as well as you would like and you might want to quit but you can’t.

How do you prepare physically and mentally for competition?
Aside from staying motivated, it’s important to be aware of other research that’s going on in your field so you can tell where your research is going in comparison. What is considered important research? I’m on the periphery of energy research, which obviously is very important right now, but it’s important to know what other people are doing in the field.

What is your favorite book about competition?
I’ve pretty much been reading primary literature exclusively!

Who is your favorite competitive role model?

My role models are some of my lab-mates and especially my principal investigator. When I joined his lab he was untenured, and I’ve watched him go through the entire tenure process. You have to be very competitive and really sell yourself as a scientist to succeed in the tenure process.

Do you have a guiding philosophy about competition?
Force myself to wake up every morning and come back into work because things are eventually going to start working. When they do, motivation will come easily.

What makes LVC competitive?
Definitely its low student-to-faculty ratio. If you’re getting lost in class, you can always go see a professor and it’s not difficult to get help. It also has a really active research department, so you can get into a research group and prepare yourself for industry or higher education.

What advice would you give to current LVC students?
Try to participate in as many activities as possible—but keep some free time to maintain your mental health. I was involved in athletics and research and academics, and it really helped with my ability to manage my time and stimulated all aspects of my mind simultaneously. It really helps you be competitive in a variety of mindsets. Also, start planning your future early, because you don’t want to end up three months away from graduation not sure about what you’re doing next.


Eric Wier ’09

How did you acquire your competitive spirit?

I’m somewhat competitive although I don’t think that really defines my personality or even how I do research. I’ve had a lot more success at being open-minded and engaging with everybody I meet in the other labs here. I try to use cooperation to forge new ideas and I find that has been very successful.

What motivates you?
My lab and department is a pretty close-knit group of people, akin to what I had at LVC. Everyone’s very friendly and that helps tremendously. So even if my work isn’t going that well, I never dread going in because I know I’m supported in that way. In addition, I like the creative freedom I have and the ability to do what I’m interested in. That motivates me and makes me excited about the work I’m doing.

What activities, people, or courses at LVC helped you prepare for success?
One of the biggest was the two semesters of biochemistry taught by Dr. Patton. It was a fantastic course and he’s a fantastic guy, fun to interact with and be around. In this course, he did an excellent job of taking information that I’d been learning since high school and pooling it together and making you realize how you could apply that information. That light goes on in your head and you realize you understand this and it makes sense. Honestly, that course and a few other biology courses I took at Lebanon Valley were as hard or harder than anything I’ve had to take at Hopkins.

How has global competition changed your field?
Research is global—it happens all around the world and there’s certainly huge competition in applying for grants, particularly in the United States because the NIH budget is smaller. But it’s more of a struggle for funding, not as much a struggle between fields. There are so many interesting ideas out there and there isn’t that much money to go around. But there are papers published all around the world and in general I’ve had very good experiences contacting labs in other countries—most labs are cooperative and helpful. We’re all in it together, that’s the power of science. It’s very much built on that trust.

What’s most important to remain competitive in your field?
Probably the most important thing is publishing papers. The only real currency that people look at is publications, especially first-author publications. Getting a broad research base using a lot of techniques is helpful too, so you’re well rounded, but primarily they’re going to look at publications.

How do you prepare physically and mentally for competition?
Science is not a nine-to-five job—you’re always thinking about it and always could be reading more. So I’ve taken pains to have a life outside of science and not let it define me completely.

It scares me a little bit that to really excel at research and run a large lab, it has to be your complete and only passion. It’s what you do all the time—always writing grants, thinking about new projects. In a later stage of my career perhaps I could do that, but now to stay motivated and excited about things, I can’t just focus on science—it’s too easy to get burnt out. I try to do other things every evening. I listen to a lot of music and go to a lot of concerts. Also, I enjoy playing various board games.

What is your favorite book about competition?
Some graduate students in my department started a book club, so I get to read a little more than I anticipated. We recently finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” which comes to mind when you think of competition in the sense that it’s about a kid’s battle against fate in a crazy time.

Who is your favorite competitive role model?
One of the first role models who really pushed me toward science would be Dr. Patton—he was a huge influence on me. Also, Dr. Timothy Peelen [associate professor of chemistry]. He showed me that chemistry can be a fun problem-solving challenge, a puzzle, rather than just math and unit analysis. Here at Hopkins, my principal investigator is a huge influence—he’s so positive and constantly excited about the work he’s doing. Certainly my parents were a huge influence on my work ethic and how I approach situations.

Do you have a guiding philosophy about competition?
I very much value people generating their own ideas, but I also value other people’s opinions. I like when colleagues help strengthen each other’s ideas, rather than being secretive. I would lean toward a healthy form of competition, trying to continually do your best alongside other people.

Which leaders inspire you, and why?
All throughout my schooling I felt that when I get to that next step, that’s when I’m going to meet the big scientists. But I’ve found that it really never happened, and it became a lot clearer that scientists are just people like the rest of us. Putting them on a pedestal separates us more than I think we should be.

It’s hard to convey to high school students that the things they’re reading in textbooks were discovered by people just like they’ll be in a few years. Which is not to say that there aren’t a lot of incredible people here at Hopkins—there are a lot of people I really look up to—but in general, we’re all a lot more alike than I initially thought. It does a bit of a disservice to just write off these other people as big experts—it sells everyone a little bit short.

What makes LVC competitive?
It’s the close-knit community where you get to know your professors, where you’re not just a number. The ability to work so closely with those people is just fantastic. Lebanon Valley gave me an excellent education, as good as any I’ve come across.

What advice would you give to current LVC students?
Try to use your learning synergistically. It’s really easy to be passive and rush through everything, but to get the most out of your classes and to be better prepared for the future you should bring your knowledge from previous classes to the questions at hand. It goes back to having faith in your own capability, in your thoughts, and your reasoning abilities. 


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