Fall Winter 07

The Core


Summer in the City

In Fermi’s Footsteps

Seeds of Change


Editor's Note

Vox Populi

Science Beyond Boundaries

Supporting Students as They Are

Summer Stock

Head of the Class

Geeking Out

Goin' West

Go Ask Alumni

Eye on the Quads

Science Beyond Boundaries

As the biological and physical sciences converge, a young star scientist works at their fertile intersection.

A dedicated research facility that doesn’t incorporate classroom space, the Gordon Center for Integrative Science isn’t much of an undergraduate haunt. Completed in 2005, the building was designed to encourage interdisciplinary work between the biological scientists who are largely housed in its west wing and the physical scientists who work in its east wing. Bridging these are a glass-walled cafeteria and lounge. Many days this connecting space is where you might, appropriately, find junior Elisabet Pujadas, one of relatively few College students doing original research in the laboratories of the Gordon Center.

Born in Barcelona and educated there before coming to Chicago in 2005, Pujadas chose to come to an American university in order to be immersed in an environment that nurtures the expansion and free play of ideas and the collaborative exchange of those ideas between individuals. An early ambition was to become a practicing doctor. That’s still a good possibility, but the direction of Pujadas’s coursework and research in the College have tweaked that ambition, lending her a broader perspective. She summarizes her work as investigating the “fundamental scientific questions that have implications for people.”

Pujadas is part of the College’s highly competitive Program in Physical and Chemical Biology, run through the University’s interdisciplinary Institute for Biophysical Dynamics. Known as “PC Bio,” the program is designed for students “who are interested in making a serious commitment to interdisciplinary research that crosses fields including physics, chemistry, molecular biology, and computation.” It provides ten of them each year with funding and the opportunity to earn class credit for advanced independent research. Pujadas’s research investigates how regulatory networks of proteins called transcription factors affect the expression of specific genes during cell differentiation, and comprises two stages.

First, Pujadas is working in a biology laboratory under the supervision of Harinder Singh, the Louis Block Professor of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, to gather data. Once this data collection is complete, the next stage of the project will require her to to generate large-scale computer models of gene expression; she will undertake this work under the supervision of Aaron Dinner, Assistant Professor of Chemistry. Describing the demands of these different aspects of her work, Pujadas notes the divergent nature of the skills required to produce, for instance, an accurate titration or flawless code. All they have in common is that each requires the utmost precision. She’s up to the challenge, says Dinner, who praises the “excitement, drive, and hard work” behind the project: “It is challenging even for a single graduate student to work on both the experimental and theoretical parts of a project, so what Elisabet is doing is exceptional by any standard.” The granting committee of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation apparently agreed; last March it named Pujadas a Goldwater Scholar for 2007-08.

For Pujadas, science can be as simple as “knowing how things work”—but “a good scientist knows when she’s in a good position to ask her question.” Being in that position, she says, means knowing the right approach to the question, having the right tools to answer it, and being surrounded by insightful colleagues. She also cites a keen eye for detail that doesn’t lose sight of the big picture— characteristics that her current research demands.

Pujadas’s consciousness of the stakes of her research is reflected in the diligence, excitement, and commitment she has brought to bear in laying the foundation of her project. A course in mathematical methods opened her mind to the possibility of modeling large traits at a high level of abstraction, and brought about a sea change in her approach to biological questions. She then continued in an interdisciplinary vein, electing to pursue the College’s recently created minor in physics. Pujadas speaks of physics with genuine excitement, while acknowledging the demands of “learning the language” in a new field.

Whether she follows the MD/PhD track after graduation or chooses a solely research-centered career, Pujadas is adamant that her work should have real-world applications in pathology or oncology, helping real people. To gain firsthand experience of the application of biomedical research at every stage, from laboratory to patient care, she has been shadowing a hematologist at the University Hospitals. Lauding her commitment, Professor José Quintans, Master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division, also notes the College’s contribution to her auspicious debut as a researcher: “Elisabet’s research and coursework are a fine example of the cutting-edge education that the College offers to future physician-scientists destined to lead the biomedical enterprise in the 21st century.” — Kristian C.J. Kerr