Xochina El Hilali is ridiculous. I mean that in a good way. In fact, I'm stealing a page from her playbook. I've heard her use the word "ridiculous" to describe a favorite piece of music, a scientist she heard speak, and the amount of money she was awarded when selected as a United Negro College Fund/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholar.
Like many ridiculously smart and talented people, El Hilali stands on the shoulders of giants-starting with her maternal grandfather, Cambell Gonzalez, who recently died at the age of 92. El Hilali's family doesn't just remember him fondly. He remains an iconic figure. And for good reason. He was the first in everything, says El Hilali's mother, Anita Gonzalez. He bought a house for his mother when he was 16 with the money that he made by shining shoes, she says, starting to tick off a list. He was one of the first black commissioned officers in the World War II army; he was the first black engineer for RCA; he was a financial planner. He influenced everyone in the family to strive for excellence.
"He's the kind of person," says his granddaughter, "that if you'd get a 97 on a test, and you'd say, 'Grandpa, Grandpa, I'm so excited. I got an A.' He'd ask, 'Well, what about the other three points?' Then, you'd come back with a 99, and you'd say, 'Look. I got more points than last time.' He'd ask, 'Well, what about that one point?' So that's been an influence in all of our lives. We couldn't just excel. We had to be the best."
For El Hilali, her grandfather was the person she could always talk to about science. She remembers when she was only 12 years old having a not-very-typical preteen discussion with him. The topic was acceleration. "I refused to believe that when you were in a circle, it was accelerating the whole time, even if it was at a constant speed," she says. "He spent so much time describing how it was and why that made sense; and, physically, he had to prove it." The intellectual discussions continued as she grew up, with her grandfather often describing science theory that was more complex than what she was learning in school. "With him, it was like an open science discussion," she says, "which was nice." Two years ago, when she was visiting him, he was trying to solve the Schrîdinger equation from quantum mechanics, which describes how the quantum state of a physical system changes in time. "I did the simple version in class," says El Hilali. "But only because I had to. He did it in his free time."
Of course, the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree. El Hilali's mother remembers coming home after work one afternoon to find her daughter sitting in the living room with her stepfather and a whiteboard. El Hilali was about 13 at the time. "They're sitting there writing what looked like circles and lines, circles and lines, circles and lines," says Gonzalez. "And they'd obviously been at it for an hour at least. And she was completely fascinated. I said, 'What are you guys doing?' And he said, 'I'm teaching Xochina binary code.' There was a whiteboard lying on the floor with zeroes and ones, zeroes and ones. And she said, 'Mom, this is so cool!'"
This was around the same time when El Hilali became interested in origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. "I came home one day and said, 'What are you doing, Xochie?' And she said, 'I'm making cranes. I'm going to make a thousand of them.' A thousand cranes? She said, 'They say that's what you should do. So she made 1,000 cranes. It took her months, and she decorated her entire room with cranes hanging from strings-a thousand cranes on her ceiling."
When El Hilali becomes engaged in something that really interests her, she spends hours and hours doing it, Gonzalez says. "During one vacation, she had a sketch pad. I asked her, 'What are you doing?' A lot of these stories start with 'Xochie, what are you doing?' She says, 'I'm doing hands.' And I look, and she's done 16 pages of hands as a study of how the hand looks, over and over. Not so much that she's seeking perfection, I guess. She's just trying to keep exploring the ways that it can work."
Which might explain why El Hilali still finds herself excited in a lab course whenever she does an experiment and the color of the solution changes-even when she expected it to happen. "I feel like I'm always surprised. Or intrigued," she says. "Even when I'm doing something that's kind of annoying to do-like running my thousandth sample on the HPLC [high pressure liquid chromatography]. I just like things that have reasons behind them. Like if there's an effect, I want to know the cause pretty much."
It's a rainy fall afternoon. El Hilali, looking college chic in skinny jeans and pink and brown marbleized rain boots, is in the RNA chemical biology lab of her professor, Subha Das, deep in the maze of hallways that thread through the Mellon Institute. There's a concept called click chemistry used for accelerating molecular synthesis for projects such as drug discovery and the development of new materials. Doctoral chemistry student Eduardo Paredes has developed a way to make click chemistry work with RNA, which is normally very fragile. Using this approach, he's discovered a way to do rapid ligations, or the joining of two, in this case, RNA strands. Now he's trying to figure out if the chemical click ligation produces RNA that can function in biological contexts and to extend its practical applications. This also happens to be the fall semester senior research project of El Hilali. "Originally, ligations are done by enzymes, and the conditions have to be optimized for each strand of RNA that you're using, and then for the enzymes," rattles off El Hilali.
Her goal for today is producing a DNA fragment through restriction-using an enzyme to cut the DNA plasmid she has, which is in the shape of a circle, and make it linear. It's just one of the steps in what will be the larger process of producing a long strand of RNA that has been reverse transcribed into its complementary DNA.
As she explains the click ligation to me, she grabs my notebook. "When you ligate pieces together, there has to be a link between the two base pairs," she explains. "And usually the link between the two base pairs is a phosphate group. It's a PO4." She quickly draws a figure-P's and O's connected by dashes and equal signs. "But when you do the click ligation, the linkage is a triazole." She draws a pentagon with N's at three corners and dashes leading to base pairs. She refers to those base pairs as "schmear-it's like junk at the top, it doesn't matter what the bases are, it's the linkages that matter for the project."
Earlier in the lab, she had already set up the restriction. Now, she turns off a small white machine and takes out the block of gel-it looks like clear, almost hard Jell-O. She doesn't see what she's looking for and worries that the process has failed. She takes the block into a dark room. More disappointment. She puts the block back into the machine to run a little longer, thinking about what she could change-maybe the buffer-to get it to work. A minute later, she pulls out the sample again. This time, she almost squeals. The lines are faint, but she can see them. (For the record, I can't see them.) Her co-worker, grad student Priyanka Anand, has just returned from lunch and El Hilali shows them to her. They are both delighted to get some results. "Okay," says El Hilali, "we have two bands. We know that it barely worked. But it worked. It's progress."
Das, her professor, has known El Hilali since her freshman year when she came to his lab to ask whether there was something she could work on. He says that one of the great things about her is that she perseveres. "There was a project she was doing for a long time last year that was extremely tedious and boring, very repetitive," he recalls. "We were trying to construct an enzyme, but it was going to be different from the natural enzyme by changing just one atom. The product she was working on was to purify one of the pieces which had that modification. We had to separate it to make sure the piece we had was entirely pure, so we could then reconstitute it to make the new enzyme. Xochina was always very enthusiastic and smiling-even though the work was really tedious and boring. That's sort of refreshing. It gives a nice vibe over here in the lab."
When I ask El Hilali about turning points in her life, she mentions without hesitation: boarding school; Carnegie Mellon; and last summer's paid internship at a Merck research lab in West Point, Pa., a coveted opportunity for an undergraduate that was one of the perks of being named a UNCF/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholar.
In recalling these landmarks in her life, she pauses for a moment. She's just realized they were all tied to changes in location, and ponders that. But maybe it's not so surprising. She grew up "all over the place." New York City, Honduras, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, and upstate New York before leaving for school in Rhode Island and now Pittsburgh.
The moves coincided with her mother's pursuit of her PhD. Anita Gonzalez is a director, choreographer, and writer. She was a founding member of the Afro-centric feminist dance troupe Urban Bush Women. "Xochina has been exposed to a lot of really interesting artists who are always questioning ideas," says Gonzalez. "She spent a lot of time sleeping on the floor of theaters during rehearsals. She has a really good eye, actually, for critiquing theatrical performances. And dance shows. She's seen more dance shows than she ever wants to see." Before El Hilali's sophomore year in high school, Gonzalez took a faculty position in the theater department at SUNY New Paltz, about 80 miles outside New York City. Gonzalez chose the location, in part, because of the reputation of the school district. El Hilali describes New Paltz as a small, hippie, mountain-climbing kind of town where there's always a tie-dye shop around the corner.
When El Hilali was younger, the family joke was that if El Hilali didn't behave, her mother was going to send her to boarding school. Right around the time they were moving from Florida to New Paltz, they joked about it in front of a family friend. "Our friend said, 'Actually, there is a program that sends you to boarding school,'" El Hilali recounts. She told them about the organization, A Better Chance, which matches minority students with elite college preparatory schools. (Small-world connection: The president of A Better Chance is Sandra Timmons (HNZ'85), who was the Carnegie Mellon Today cover story for the July 2008 issue.)
El Hilali was accepted to St. George's School in Newport, R.I.-the same school, Gonzalez likes to point out, attended by the late senator Prescott Bush, who was the father of George Bush and grandfather of George W. Bush, both presidents of the United States. "I was away from my parents, which was a big, difficult step for me, because I'm close to them," El Hilali says. "But at the school, I studied with people who otherwise I would never have had the chance to interact with." She also says she felt an emphasis there to be more than a good student; the students were expected to be leaders. It was where she first learned about Carnegie Mellon. "I probably wouldn't have applied here if I hadn't gone to St. George's." She's glad she did. "I love it here. I think it's a great school."
One of the things she loves about Carnegie Mellon is the sense that everyone is really into what they're doing. "I haven't met anyone that does anything half-assed," she says. "It's kind of nice being in an environment where if I'm doing anything, I'm expected to really do it, and there's no room for me to slack off about it. Hopefully, not that I would, but it's nice having that extra incentive."
She also likes being exposed to her classmates' academic passions. "People are excited about things that I would consider completely random," she says. "Like my housemate, who has been doing research about how music affects people's brains. It's very technical, and I don't necessarily understand all of it. The connection makes sense, obviously, but it's something I never would have considered studying or even know that it existed. Music makes you feel a certain way, but I would never have thought about it literally affecting you physically, which it does."
Another example comes to mind-a student giving a talk about starting his first computer consulting company at the age of 11. "Who would've thought at that age you'd be starting your own company. Ridiculous-I mean, in a good way."
El Hilali almost downplays her own academic prowess, but her accomplishments didn't escape the judges for the UNCF/Merck scholarship, which is intended to encourage the interest of African American undergraduate students in science and biomedical science careers. In addition to receiving a $25,000 scholarship, she gets to take part in two paid Merck internships-the one she had this past summer and one still to come after her graduation in May.
Only 15 winners were selected nationally by UNCF/Merck based, in part, on GPA and ability to perform in a laboratory or engineering environment. When El Hilali learned she won, the first person she called was her dad, Salah El Hilali. "I may have done a little dance," she admits. "There may have been some shouting involved."
Now that the shouting has died down, El Hilali is spending her senior year getting even more involved in the campus community. She's joined the Carnegie Clan, AB Concerts and Coffeehouse, the radio station, and the Explorers Club, all while finishing up the requirements for her chemistry major and her minor in economics. The near future is pretty clear-she'll graduate in the spring and spend the summer in her second internship at Merck. She's still in the process of deciding whether she wants to go to grad school in the fall or get a few years of professional experience under her belt first. Further out, she thinks it would be cool to dream up a new chemical process or discover a new organism she could name after herself. "If there could be the El Hilali process, or El Hilali-that would be pretty sweet," she laughs.
In fact, it would be ridiculous.
Sally Ann Flecker is an award-winning freelance writer. She is a regular contributor to this magazine.