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Proactive students find inspiration in Penn State science labs

Two undergraduate students cast a wide net to realize their true science interests
7 November 2019

Isiah Holt and Donovan Brown are go-getters who recognize that their undergraduate years are a time to explore areas of science that interest them and to challenge themselves by exploring less-familiar subjects. Their passion and drive—key characteristics common in any budding scientist—led them to ask their professors for career advice and how to best take advantage of the variety of research opportunities available at University Park. Their efforts have resulted in formative experiences that led them to new focal areas they had not considered or even known about.

Holt and Brown seized opportunities to conduct research both on and off campus, exploring and stretching their academic limits during their undergraduate years.

“At a campus as large as Penn State, you need to make your own path,” said Brown ’21, a biology major. “There are hundreds of labs to reach out to in order to find out what’s available and what you are interested in.  Summers are a great time to explore new labs and different areas of science.”

After participating in a summer lab experience at Vanderbilt University, Brown was inspired to continue doing research that could make the difference in someone’s life. Returning to State College, he sought similar work in the lab of Justin Pritchard, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, who studies cancer drug resistance. “I made an appointment to meet with Dr. Pritchard to see if I was the right fit for his lab, and it all worked out,” he said. “I enjoy the research in Dr. Pritchard’s lab so much that I hope to continue to work there until I graduate.” Brown has also lined up a summer laboratory experience at CalTech to study DNA-editing technology, a completely different line of research. He hopes the breadth of these very different experiences will open even more focus areas to him as he prepares to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. after graduation.

Holt ’20, a dual major in astronomy and astrophysics and physics, realized his shifting career interests during his first year at Penn State when he dropped a math class in which he was struggling. “Everyone goes though bumpy periods in school, and when I had to drop Math 140 I could have gotten down about it,” he said. “But I realized that the course wasn’t astronomy and that’s what I was passionate about.” Incidentally, Holt plans to graduate with a minor in math in addition to his dual major.

While he was struggling with Math 140, Holt attended an Astronomy Club lecture on the search for potentially habitable planets outside our solar system. He was so inspired that he approached the speaker, Jason Wright, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics, and asked if he could work with him. A couple of semesters later he found himself doing just that.

Go-getter Donovan Brown completes Pittsburgh Marathon the week after finals.

Holt is clearly enamored with astronomy and has plans to pursue his passion. As he enters his final year at Penn State, he is applying to graduate schools in astronomy. “I want to talk to people about science and be surrounded by people who love science, as well,” he said, adding that he aspires to be an astronomy professor. “I love astronomy.”

Holt said his dual major is challenging, but he stays motivated by the community of astronomy and physics majors that he hangs out with. “There are so many areas of astronomy to explore, and that’s why it’s important to investigate different things to find out what you like,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to ask for things from professors. It’s also helpful to surround yourself with others who share the same space with you and take the same tough courses that you take. The shared experience makes it easier.”

Brown offered similar advice to students: “Get to know your professors. Expand your network and support system,” he said, recalling how he struck up a relationship with a chemistry professor he didn’t have for class but whom he got to know and visited on a regular basis. “He had office hours, so I visited and learned so much from him that I used to make decisions about my future path.”

For students who may not be as bold as Holt and Brown, the Eberly College of Science’s Office of Science Engagement helps students sort through the many undergraduate research opportunities available, including summer research. The office also helps connect students to employers, faculty, and staff outside the classroom to enhance their learning experience. “We know that students who engage in research outside of their normal course work tend to stay in science, graduate with higher GPAs, and are more likely to be successful getting in to grad school or landing their first job after graduation,” said Tomalei Vess, director of engagement at the Eberly College of Science.