The Biochemistry Program fulfills all of the curricular requirements for medical school. But it's also common for biochemistry majors to go on to graduate school in biochemistry, chemistry, molecular biology, or related fields. Several recent graduates have pursued careers in law, business, or even scientific journalism. Meet some of our recent alumni below.
Sommer Johansen ’15
As Sommer Johansen ’15 continues her PhD program in the Crabtree Lab at the University of California-Davis, it’s not hard to find the strands of her UVM experience that make up the core of her current research and her passion of exploring the frontiers of science. Johansen grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains and made her first visit to UVM when she accompanied her mom, Peggy Johansen '84, for her 25th class reunion in Burlington. “I was just blown away by the city and the surrounding beauty of the mountains,” Johansen recalls. When she began her college search years later, the memory of that visit stuck with her—she entered UVM in 2011 and declared a double major in anthropology and biochemistry. She eventually dropped anthro in favor of a physics minor, but she appreciated the opportunity to explore different paths.
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“I found a lot of support from faculty who encouraged me to experiment in a range of subjects. I took the exploratory route and took different classes like dance and German.” She also worked as an undergraduate lab assistant for professor of chemistry Matt Liptak. Liptak’s lab uses spectroscopy, a technique using electromagnetic radiation, to learn about small molecules—it’s a method she’s using now in a similar line of research at UC Davis. Johansen recalls several courses that were also influential in her career trajectory--an advanced biochemistry course taught by Rob Hondal whetted her curiosity about the origins of life on earth, and an astrophysics class taught by professor of physics Joanna Rankin explored life beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Johansen’s research group at UC Davis uses microwave spectroscopy to study chemical reactions that occur in the “blank space” between the stars. “There’s actually a rich chemistry that takes place in space and we've found important biological molecules on meteorites,” explains Johansen. “There are huge mysteries about how these molecules formed and where. These are the kind of problems that got me turned on to science—problems I feel are worth dedicating my life to.” In her spare time, Johansen participates in a local science literacy outreach program for youngsters. In the future she sees herself continuing her research and sharing her passion for science for students in higher education.
Laurel Saldinger ‘16
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, Laurel Saldinger’s twin fascinations were animals and science, so veterinary school seemed like a natural destination. Her twin undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and animal science at UVM propelled her to the University of California Davis, which boasts the top ranked veterinary science program in the nation. “When I started looking at colleges, I was primarily looking for schools with a strong animal science program. I also wanted to get out of California and experience something different.” Her search ended up at UVM, where she rode on the equestrian team and developed a deeper interest in biochemistry.
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“I really loved my chemistry classes from the first year all the way through organic,” she recalls. “Dr. (Chris) Landry knew I was interested in vet school, so he steered me a little bit toward biochemistry, knowing that would give my studies more dimension.” She developed an interest in nutritional biology and worked in the lab of Dr. Jana Kraft in the department of animal and veterinary sciences. Her undergraduate thesis concentrated on rumen microbiota—the tiny microorganisms in the digestive tracts of cows. “We were looking at changes in the composition of bacteria and protozoa as the animals’ diet changed. There are these interesting connections between the diet of the cow and human nutrition.” Her studies at UVM also provided plenty of room to explore other niches in the curriculum, like toxicology and immunology. It all added up to a rich practical and theoretical undergraduate experience that led to her acceptance at the University of California-Davis and Cornell. Now back in her home state, Saldinger still enjoys horseback riding in her spare time. Meanwhile, she’s considering a career in academia. “I’d like to get into a Ph.D. program at some point, but I'm still torn between nutritional biochemistry and my current research, which looks at stem cell interactions with the immune system of horses. I had experience as a TA in chemistry and biochemistry classes, so I enjoyed teaching and see that as a big part of my future.”
Julia Torvi ’15
A native of the North Shore region of Massachusetts, Julia Torvi ’15 was a strong science student in high school. She took AP math and science and had the option of attending several excellent liberal arts colleges (she considered Middlebury, St. Michaels and Williams). “I have a habit of prolonging decisions—or to put it another way, making sure I don’t close doors on future opportunities,” she says. “UVM seemed to offer the best of both worlds—more of a college feel with the options that come with a strong research university.” Torvi was equally attracted by quantitative subjects like math and the hard sciences, so biochemistry seemed to present the widest range of opportunity. Now working in the Biggins Lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she’s absolutely confident she made the right decision. “I strongly believe biochemistry is a great foundation if you are interested in any biology related-related sciences.”
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As a UVM undergraduate she worked in the lab of chemistry professor Giuseppe Petrucci, and earned a National Science Foundation Noyce scholarship, which helps STEM majors prepare for work as K-12 science and math educators. Working as an undergraduate tutor, and as a supplemental instructor in chemistry, Torvi also received significant hands-on teaching experience. “As an SI during my junior and senior years, I was tutoring first-year chemistry students. I’d host office hours to review lectures and help them with problem sets. It was fun talking with them about their struggles and their aspirations. It also helped me develop a deeper perspective on my own studies and confidence as a teacher.” Later in her UVM career Torvi worked in the lab of Jason Stumpff in the department of molecular physiology and biophysics. The lab investigates the molecular mechanisms controlling cell division and how they relate to human disease. Torvi spent the summer prior to her senior year working in the lab. Then, because she had only a few credits to finish for her degree senior year, she spent much of her final two semesters working with Stumpff. “I did my senior thesis while working pretty much full time in the lab. It added up to almost two full years of practical experience before I graduated.” It was Strumpff’s advice and connections that helped her land a job at Hutchinson. Now she’s investigating new doors that are opening up in her research career. “My UVM experience takes on this wonderful golden glow now in my memory—I see so many connections between my undergraduate years and future opportunities.”