Gwen Buel, '09

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Graduate student in biology, Harvard University

Gwen Buel

Last spring, Gwen Buel '09 knew she had crossed a major intellectual hurdle, and it wasn't just that she'd been accepted at Harvard to pursue a doctorate in biology. (She had — and is.) 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."

Close guidance from her faculty mentor

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.

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