From The Valley to the Ivy Leagues
Lebanon Valley College’s long-standing national—and international—reputation in the sciences has led to numerous Valley chemistry graduates moving on to internationally recognized Ph.D. programs at institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins University, University of California at Berkeley, and Columbia University, among many others, in the last decade or so. However, The Valley appears to have a special relationship with Princeton University, sending at least five recent graduates to this Ivy League bastion for their Ph.D.s. Drs. Ryan Buzdygon ’02 and Sophia Lunt ’05 are two in this special group who have made the successful transition.
Princeton’s history of academic excellence drew the LVC chemistry majors to attend the university. Nonetheless, those who wish to follow in their academic footsteps should be prepared for some transitional challenges so that they, too, can be successful. Buzdygon and Lunt offer some advice, including regarding one of the primary difficulties in adjusting to the change in student-faculty relationships.
“Very early in my time at Princeton, I recognized how different it was going to be moving from a situation where I was one of a few students doing research in Dr. Carl Wigal’s [late LVC professor of chemistry] lab—with an open door between the lab and his office—to my first week at Princeton sitting in a research group meeting with 20+ other students, post-docs, and researchers,” explains Buzdygon.
“It was daunting and challenging to shift from Lebanon Valley College to Princeton. At Princeton, I no longer had the frequent one-on-one interactions with the faculty that I had become accustomed to at Lebanon Valley,” agrees Lunt.
At Princeton, Buzdygon focused part of his research on using small molecule catalysts to mimic the reactivity of cytochrome P450 drug metabolism whereas Lunt worked to understand how an anti-metabolite drug (a drug that targets cellular metabolism) kills bacteria that causes infections in humans.
It was at LVC that Lunt realized her passion for molecules and human disease and Buzdygon was able to prepare for graduate-level laboratory work.
“At LVC, I spent a significant amount of time doing independent research in the laboratory of Dr. Wigal, starting my sophomore year and over the summers. This time in the lab was incredibly useful for preparing me for graduate school where most of your time is spent in the lab,” notes Buzdygon.
Following her time at Princeton, Lunt conducted post-doctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she received the Department of Defense Visionary Postdoctoral Award to support her research in cancer metabolism. She now works as a Tenure-Track Assistant Professor in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department at Michigan State University where her research focuses on understanding the role of metabolism in supporting cancer proliferation, heterogeneity, and metastasis.
Ultimately, she says, “Princeton shaped me into the scientist I am today and taught me how to think, not just learn. I learned to think creatively and critically as well as how to communicate my research effectively through writing and oral presentations. These skills are critical for my professional life.”
Buzdygon used his chemistry Ph.D. research on chemical catalysts to begin a biotech startup company in the laboratory at Princeton. In 2011, Buzdygon and his team raised the money to set up their own laboratory and launch HepatoChem in Beverly, Mass. Currently the director of operations, Buzdygon describes the company as a research-drive service company for the pharmaceutical industry that works with clients using a chemical platform in drug development.
“I think that the general liberal arts education along with the intensive coursework in the Chemistry Department at LVC prepared me well for my current position working in a startup company,” maintains Buzdygon. “During each day, I have to balance my time between the laboratory, writing reports for clients, and customer-facing activities such as marketing and managing staff.”
Though very different, both graduates agree regarding the formative experiences and quality education they received at Lebanon Valley College and Princeton University.
For Lunt, “LVC and Princeton have beautiful campuses that provide supportive, nurturing environments for their students. Princeton is larger than LVC and has a much more competitive atmosphere, which reinforced the lesson that I learned at LVC: finding good mentors at every stage of my career is extremely important.”
Buzdygon attests to the competitive nature of a Princeton education and the preparatory nature of LVC: “I would say the atmosphere at LVC is designed in a way so that you are prepared to be successful in your next steps in the real world, while the atmosphere and environment at Princeton is designed to test if you are.”
All good advice, indeed.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Christine Burgess ’04, Dr. Johanna Scarino Lemons ’06, and Dr. Nicholas Boaz ’10 also received their Ph.D.s from Princeton, and Dr. Raymond Schaak ’98 conducted post-doctoral research at Princeton after earning his Ph.D. at the Pennsylvania State University.