Beckman Graduate Students Paint a Diverse Picture

Piotr Adamczyk was born in Poland, grew up in Illinois, and went from earning bachelor's degrees in mathematics and computer science to studying for master's degrees in both human factors and library information science. Marcos Sotomayor came to Illinois from Chile with a degree in physics, but at Beckman he does biological computer simulations. Danielle Chandler wasn't satisfied to get one degree at Illinois; she earned three in the spring of 2005. Maritza Alvarado has known what she wanted to do since the age of 13: become a doctor. That challenge wasn't quite enough for the Southern California native, however. She's also working toward a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

"Actually, when I applied to medical school one of the questions during the interview process was 'where do you see yourself in 10 years?' My response was 'still in school.'" - Maritza Alvarado

About the only thing these four University of Illinois graduate students have in common is that they are all engaged in some type of research at the Beckman Institute. There are more than 600 graduate students from just about every scientific discipline on campus at Beckman who, other than perhaps sharing the look of someone who has spent too much time in the lab and not enough sleeping, defy any attempt to label them as a "typical" grad student.

As a group they do much of the groundwork that makes the research possible, but as individuals they are diverse in their histories, goals, research interests, and in how they ended up at the Beckman Institute. While there may not be a typical Beckman grad student, Adamczyk could serve as the Institute's poster boy. His approach to science would make Arnold Beckman proud.

Piotr Adamczyk
"To boil it down, I'm interested in interdisciplinary approaches," Adamczyk said.

"All the problems that I'm interested in are ones that need various perspectives. If I come at it from one disciplinary angle, I keep thinking that there are things that aren't being addressed."

Adamczyk is earning Master's degrees from the departments of Library Information Science and Human Factors in order to address issues from different perspectives.

"Library information science deals a lot with how people organize and categorize information. Human factors deals with how they perceive and act on it," Adamczyk said.

"Library science helps us make decisions about what information to provide and human factors tells us how we do that."

Adamczyk is part of an effort on campus to integrate computer science and the creative arts; he served as a teaching assistant for Professor Kevin Hamilton for a Spring 2007 course called Memory Palaces that dealt with architecture and technology. He also helped organize a conference focusing on tools for incorporating computer science into creative endeavors.

"What we are trying to do is find out how science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and all of that relates to design practices and how the creativity that is coming out of the design practices might be applied," Adamczyk said.

The Memory Palaces class looked at interdisciplinary collaborations. Adamczyk said the class's goal was to build collaborative teams of representatives from different disciplines and then observe how they went about the collaboration process.

"When you get a lot of people from the same discipline there is a lot of shorthand, they have a lot of shared background touchstones for their discipline," he said. "But how do people collaborate when they don't have any of that, especially in an educational setting?"

Adamczyk was also an organizer for the Creativity and Cognition 2007 conference.

He said it featured people such as architects and professors "who have developed novel uses of technology, especially as applied in these creative domains.

"No one's really explored that intersection of how it is that science information and the methodologies from the arts can come together in that space."

Sounds like a topic that Adamczyk, who said he plans to continue on in academia after earning his Master's degrees, will be perfectly suited to address in the future.

"The problems I pick are ones that seem not to have any solutions," he said. "They're always the ones on the periphery that people always talk about at the end of a paper, the part that says 'this is beyond the scope of this research.'"

Danielle Chandler
Danielle Chandler is a member of the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics group who occupies a unique place in an area encompassing computer science, engineering, and physics. For one, she was part of a program in which she earned bachelor's degrees in physics, mathematics, and computer science at Illinois. For another she is a female in fields that are dominated by males. A recent article in the New York Times reported that women earned about 28 percent of the bachelor's degrees in computer science in 2003, compared to 38 percent in 1983.

Those numbers haven't stopped Chandler. She is working on two projects with TCB, one involving a protein called cryptochrome, and another on chromatophores (cells that absorb light for photosynthesis).

"The reason why cryptochrome is interesting is people think it might have to do with how birds and, possibly other animals, sense the Earth's magnetic field," Chandler said. "So it's in a good position to be involved in a magnetic compass sense because people know that the birds' compass sense is located in a mechanism in their eye. And cryptochrome is localized in these cells in the retina of birds that they know are active when they are displaying orientation behavior. So we did some calculations to see how a magnetic field might arise to see if such a mechanism is possible."

The project involving the chromatophore is geared toward building a full atomic model of the protein.

"It's quite big," Chandler said. "We want to see first of all, can we understand through a simulation how all the pieces of this chromatophore work together?"

A native of Illinois, Chandler is working towrd a Ph.D. in Physics.

While Chandler is quite interested in the molecular workings of proteins, she doesn't give much thought to her trio of bachelor's degrees.

"I don't think it's impressive as much as it is I'm just indecisive," she said with a laugh.

Maritza Alvarado
Maritza Alvarado, a graduate student in the Human Perception and Performance group, also laughs when she talks about her schooling. Perhaps that's the best attitude for someone earning a Ph.D. and medical degree at the same time.

Alvarado is in the Medical Scholars Program at Illinois, pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience while working with Beckman researcher Art Kramer on the HALT project, a study looking at aging and exercise. She is also in her second year of medical school and fifth year overall in the grueling Medical Scholars Program, which gives out Ph.D.s and M.D.s after as much as a decade of work.

"Every time I speak to my family they ask me when I am going to graduate," Alvarado said with a laugh. "The MSP program is typically about nine years. Actually, when I applied to medical school one of the questions during the interview process was 'where do you see yourself in 10 years?' My response was 'still in school.'"

Even though it is challenging, Alvarado says the work on the HALT project is serving as a complement to her medical training.

"It works out conveniently well because we work with humans and it's very much on the clinical side," she said. "I've been able to do MRI work, and intervention work, and work with the elderly community. That goes hand-in-hand with my medical education."

Alvarado's work with the HALT project focuses on maintaining cognitive ability in older adults and also looks at preserving brain structure. It's a one-year longitudinal study with a control group that does just stretching and toning and a second group that does aerobic exercise. The project is the latest in Alvarado's list of science adventures that began in the eighth grade.

"Science is something I've always had an interest in and I've always had amazing teachers who guided me to this career," Alvarado said.

That career essentially began with a science project in the eighth grade that got a boost from her science teacher, who is now a close family friend.

"She basically helped me find a research lab where I could do a project for my science fair. Ever since then, from 13 years of age, I've been doing research," Alvarado said. Obviously, Alvarado is someone who falls in the self-motivated category. She came to Illinois specifically for the Medical Scholars Program.

"As long as I have something set in mind I'm going all out to accomplish it," she said.

"MSP is difficult but very, very rewarding. Just the interaction, what you learn from others; the colleagues that I have are amazing."

The highest hurdle for this native of Pasadena hasn't been the academics.

"The biggest adjustment I have to admit is the weather," Alvarado said. "I'm not used to the cold weather nor am I used to the humid weather, so I really only like a couple weeks in the spring and a couple weeks in the fall. In the beginning I was really hesitant about being in the Midwest but as time has progressed I've really learned to like it."

Marcos Sotomayor
Marcos Sotomayor is another member of the TCB group. When he arrived in Chicago from his home of Santiago, Chile, he was greeted by two strangers - who were also countrymen - in the form of husband and- wife Ph.D. candidates at the University of Illinois.

Sotomayor is one of 10 students from Chile at the University, and part of the less than four percent of the student body who hail from South America. He didn't know anyone at Illinois when he got accepted into the graduate program for physics, but thanks to the couple who welcomed him in Chicago there was a place to stay until he got situated. Sotomayor soon found himself part of an informal network of Chileans who get together on occasion; the group helped make the transition from his home city of 5 million people to life as a grad student in the Midwest easier.

"Everyone who arrives is received by a Chilean, so the tradition continues," Sotomayor said. "If you know someone is coming, you try to be as helpful as possible." Almost as quickly as he joined the American melting pot, Sotomayor became part of another diverse group. He came to Illinois because of its reputation in physics, but soon was intrigued by an area he knew nothing about: biology, or more specifically, dynamic computer simulations of biological organisms and processes.

During an orientation and recruiting session, Sotomayor was drawn to the work being described by Theoretical and Computational Biophysics (TCB) group director Klaus Schulten. Sotomayor had earned a Master's at the University of Chile in physics, where he worked on parallel dynamic simulations.

"It was simulations but it was all materials science," Sotomayor said. "I went to Klaus and said 'I like what you presented, I may want to work with you, but I have no idea about biology. I know simulations but I don't know biology.' He said 'that's not a problem.' That's how I joined the group."

Sotomayor soon discovered that he had company as a foreign graduate student at Illinois.

"When I arrived, in the physics department there were 50 grad students, half of them were Americans and half of them were foreigners," he said. "That was very nice because in the beginning it was difficult to integrate. But we had 25 people from other countries that all had the same problems.

"Slowly, I think, we also meshed with the Americans because they got curious about other people who are coming from such different backgrounds. It's very nice in the sense that as you become friends, it's easier to get along with people who are in the same situation with you, and that also facilitates integration with the American people. They started teaching us English, for example, and we would teach them things from other countries."

Sotomayor's research within TCB uses dynamic computer simulations to study proteins involved in mechanical transduction, or the transformation of mechanical stimuli into, for example, an electrical signal.

"One example is the proteins involved in mechanotransduction in the inner ear," Sotomayor said. "The sound goes through the inner ear and eventually will move some structures, cells that are specialized to make a mechanotransduction. These structures that move will generate an electrical signal and that signal will be interpreted by the brain as a sound. What I've been trying to study is some of the molecules that might be in those cells."

Sotomayor has been prolific in publishing papers on his work at TCB, and hopes to complete his doctoral degree by September.

This article is part of the Summer 2007 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.