Love of Lab Work Leads Grad to Harvard
Release Date: 10-28-2009
Class of '09 grad Gwen Buel got hooked on research in UVM biologist Bryan Ballif's lab. Today, she's working on a doctorate in biology at Harvard. (Photo: Joshua Brown)
Last spring, Gwen Buel '09 knew she had crossed a major intellectual hurdle. It wasn't just that she'd been accepted at Harvard to pursue a doctorate in biology. (She had — and is.) No, it was something more tribal: she'd stumped her father.
"My dad is the director of the Vermont Forensic Crime Lab. He's knowledgeable. He's got a Ph.D," she says quietly, with a hint of a smile, standing next to the mass spectrometer that she used as a research assistant for UVM biologist Bryan Ballif.
"I was showing him some of my PowerPoints, and he was like, 'wait a minute, I don't understand,'" she says.
"When I was taking intro biology and general chemistry as a freshman, he'd say, 'Oh, that's what you're studying; cool.' He always got it," she says. But somewhere along the way, the tide began to shift. "I've come to realize that I've become specialized enough in the field that he doesn't know everything I know anymore."
For his part, Eric Buel is delighted. "Oh yeah," he laughs, recalling the moment, as he talks to me by cell phone. "Gwen was tutoring organic chemistry and she got into some different types of organic synthesis problems — and I had just totally forgotten! She would give a couple of names of this procedure and I would say 'Oh, yeah, but I don't know anything about that.' It was funny."
And gratifying in ways that a parent may understand best. "It's fun to watch as they come through," Eric Buel says. "It's sort of like skiing. You know, you ski with your kids and they're practicing and then you ski with them for a couple of days — and then they pass you."
At the end of Gwen Buel's sophomore year, she won an Oppenheimer research award from the biology department and went to work in the lab of Bryan Ballif for the summer. It was the beginning of several years assisting him on projects that explore signaling mechanisms that allow neurons, almost miraculously, to migrate about as the brain is developing.
"Gwen is an extraordinary student who naturally grasps how to formulate and interpret scientific experiments," Ballif says, "she has the often-elusive 'golden hands' of a careful experimentalist."
"This was my first experience conducting research in a lab, but within the first few months I spent in the department I gained incredible amounts of practical experience and by the end of the summer I was determined to pursue research as a career," Buel says.
"Dr. Ballif trained me himself. He shared a lot of time with me and showed me how to do things — that was key to my experience," Buel says. As the top student at U-32 High School, Buel could have gone to many colleges. "I definitely made the right decision coming to UVM" as part of the Honors College, she says, speaking of the close guidance she received from Ballif and others on the faculty including her adviser, chemist Chris Landry.
Now Buel is again in the slightly stiff shoes of the beginning student. This time, in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at Harvard, where Ballif trained too. If the definition of a high school senior is someone who knows everything in the world, then perhaps the definition of a graduate student is someone who has learned how little they really know.
"It's going pretty well," she says, when I reach her by phone at her new apartment in Brookline, Mass., not far from Harvard's medical campus. (It's pretty cheap digs by Boston standards, $1500/month that she splits with her boyfriend.) Then she pauses, "Well, it's a little rocky actually." A tough genetics course and rotations in big cancer and diabetes laboratories have some echoes for her of freshman year.
"I'm adjusting to classes and figuring out what I want in a lab — and what I don't want," she says. Then she pauses again. "It's a good experience."
"It's almost like being an undecided major, even though it's a PhD program, which is very specific," she says. "There are all these different labs you can choose. Oh, I could be a structural biologist and do crystallography, or I could do organic chemistry, or medicinal chemistry, or I could do cell biology, cell signaling, or some sort of animal model with mice. They're all so very different."
"Sometimes I think, 'Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?'" she says, with a soft laugh that sounds more of amazement than confusion.
But it's only October of her first year and her fundamental intellectual aim is clear: "what drives me is understanding the molecular mechanisms that are going on within the organism," she says. "Some people are working more on the systems level, but I really enjoy what's happening in the cell and how specific interactions between molecules can lead to what you actually see on the larger scale, like cancer."