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Student Opportunities Blossom in World-Class Science Programs

November 2, 2016

RHIT Ross Hunter Farmers Almanac 17166

Impacting The World: Ross Hunter, a 2016 biology graduate, has spent his postgraduate career working as a wildlife management intern on a 113,000-acre white-tail deer ranch in southwest Texas and is now assisting in a tropical ecology research project in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Rain Forest.

A year ago, Lauren (Miller) Sestito and Ross Hunter were science students spending their senior year exploring the mysteries of science and nature—Sestito testing compounds to identify possible breast cancer treatments, and Hunter examining the accuracy of long-range weather predictions in The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Now, Sestito is pursuing a doctorate in biomedical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology/Emory University in Atlanta and participating in a National Institutes of Health graduate training program for the rational design of integrative biomaterials, and Hunter is studying the effects of climate change on the El Yunque National Rain Forest in Puerto Rico.

As they begin their adventures, Sestito and Hunter join Rose-Hulman science and mathematics alumni in making contributions as researchers, physicians, and public health professionals—testaments to Rose-Hulman’s strength in science and math as well as engineering.

In a biology lab at Stanford University, 2005 chemistry alumna Emily (Mitchell) Sontag is striving to unlock the mysteries associated with neurodegenerative disorders tied to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS/Lou Gehrig’s diseases. She has received a National Institutes of Health national research service award, presented aspects of her research at the World Congress on Huntington’s disease, and had her work featured in international and national scientific journals.

“I really enjoy solving puzzles. That’s what research is to me, asking a question and figuring out how to answer it is just like solving a puzzle,” says Sontag, who has been a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology since 2013 (after earning a doctorate at the University of California Irvine (2011). “Contributing to the understanding of diseases and furthering the progression toward therapeutics is my focus.”

Also blazing new trails in science is 2006 biology alumnus Derek Trobaugh, a research assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research. He has received the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene’s Young Investigator Award, contributed to the discovery of vaccines and treatments of infectious diseases, and had research results published in the distinguished Nature and Science publications.

“These are exciting times in the research field,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to be contributing to a group of scientists making important discoveries at the forefront of this key area of science.”

Other alumni focused on medicine and health:

  • Jill Shuman, a 2014 alumna and second-year student in Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s medical physics doctorate program, specializing in medical imaging
  • Eric Smith, a 2010 chemistry and biochemistry graduate who has spent four years as a student in Cincinnati Hospital Medical Center’s Cancer and Blood Disease Institute
  • Stefani Vande Lune, a 2006 biology alumna who recently started at the Indiana University School of Medicine after earning a law degree from George Washington University Law School.
  • Chad Zarse, a 2005 biology/biochemistry alumnus who is a nephrologist with the Indiana Kidney Specialists
  • David Lakey, 1986 chemistry graduate who is leading the Northeast Texas Population Health Initiative, focusing on improving health outcomes throughout the region. Lakey previously was commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health.
  • Spencer Fox, a 2013 biology graduate who is examining epidemic modeling at the University of Texas to understand epidemic infectious disease dynamics, with particular attention to emerging epidemics like Ebola and Zika. 

Amazing Research Facilities and Opportunities

RHIT CHEM113L Ross Weatherman Lab 23496

Student Experiences: Chemistry and biochemistry professor Ross Weatherman gives undergraduate science students valuable research experiences in hopes of developing a drug that will target breast cancer without providing harmful side effects.

“Our science programs are among Rose-Hulman’s best-kept secrets,” says Vice President for Academic Affairs Anne Houtman, whose doctoral studies in zoology focused on the behavioral ecology of hummingbirds. “We have strong academic programs, outstanding faculty, quality facilities, and extracurricular activities. This puts our alumni on the fast-track in their careers.”

Paul Leisher, associate professor of physics and optical engineering, is providing students with opportunities to explore their interests in lasers through a $500,000 NASA-sponsored project to design and test advanced semiconductor lasers that communicate optically at very high speeds in a free-space environment.

“We have really great students here and I want to give them as many opportunities as possible to do world-class research,” says Leisher, who recently took students to explore other NASA science projects at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “We’re spreading Rose-Hulman’s academic reputation by showcasing the work our students are doing in our laboratories. Then, as graduate students, they’re expanding their knowledge and opening new worlds in science.”

“I wanted to work with my hands in a laboratory, doing something that was meaningful—something that could maybe someday revolutionize medical treatments,” says Sestito, who earned degrees in biomedical engineering and biochemistry and molecular biology—with a perfect 4.0 grade point average—before going to Georgia Tech/Emory. At Rose-Hulman, she supplemented her impressive academic credentials by working alongside chemistry and biochemistry professor Ross Weatherman in taking steps to develop a drug that will target breast cancer without providing harmful side effects. She also gained valuable laboratory experience with biology professor Richard Anthony.

Weatherman, who was named the Board of Trustees Outstanding Scholar in 2016, has enlisted several students in research examining the molecular mechanisms underlying estrogen (and anti-estrogen) action in the body.

“I think we all want the smartest people in the world working on important problems like treating cancer, so we should want Rose-Hulman students working on cancer research,” he says. “To be able to take our super-talented students and start them on a path to do that is incredibly satisfying.”

Hunter, the biology graduate studying climate change, became interested in studying science while working on his family’s 500-hive beekeeping operation. That interest was enhanced through a variety of undergraduate research opportunities, laboratory experiences, and classroom assignments on campus.

“I like how science impacts the world and the human condition. If I can do something that impacts science and life, that would be a fulfilling career,” he says. “On campus, I was always challenged to do my best work in class and lab.”

“Having the opportunity to perform research as an undergraduate at Rose-Hulman was definitely a huge boost in my career,” says Sontag, who studied under chemistry and biochemistry professor Luanne Tilstra before furthering her education at Stanford. “I had invaluable one-on-one experiences with my research mentor. Those experiences and being educated to think critically about the data gathered in the lab have been crucial throughout my postgraduate work.”