A bright-orange October sun slowly drifts behind the lighthouse toward the Atlantic Ocean’s dark-blue horizon. Three young women, fresh-faced and satisfied from a day exploring the Irish coastal town of Howth, sit on a wooden dock at the water’s edge. A half-filled bottle of Rioja and a basket of pita and hummus are within arm’s reach of each of them. The women marvel at the beauty of their surroundings: greenish-brown cliffs plummeting into a reflective sea, evergreens stretching to the heavens, icy air pricking their faces.
The Carnegie Mellon classmates are far from Pittsburgh because they are participating in the university’s study-abroad program—Judith Savitskaya chose to go to Madrid, Spain; Jessica Sochol selected Florence, Italy; and Nicolle Nacey picked London, England. Having agreed to take a brief respite from their semester’s studies, the three seniors decided to rendezvous in Ireland and explore a new place together. Judging by the beauty that surrounds them, it wasn’t a bad choice.
Savitskaya, a computational biology major and Science and Humanities Scholar, looks out reflectively at the water and takes another sip of red wine from her glass. Her two friends know her well enough to sense that the silence won’t last. It never has before, both inside and outside an academic setting. Sochol, for example, could recall the times that Savitskaya, as a teaching assistant, tutored her for her chemistry class; she had a way of demonstrably taking complex science topics and making them easier to understand. Nacey, on the other hand, once drove with her from Washington, D.C., to New York City, and there was barely a moment of silence for 250 miles—she and Savitskaya talked about their lives, different podcasts they found fascinating, science, music, philosophy, travel, pretty much any topic.
Sure enough, the silence by the ocean is broken by Savitskaya when she asks, “What do you want after your senior year; I mean, what do you really want to do with your life?”
It’s not a foreign question to college seniors; it often comes from parents, guidance counselors, and professors. It’s the kind of question for which students typically have a stock answer cued up. But that’s not the case when the question comes from a good friend. Savitskaya won’t settle for anything less than a sincere answer from her friends and from herself.
The foundation of Savitskaya’s answer can be traced back to her high school, the Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, N.J., a magnet public school that has been recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best high schools in the United States. According to 2011 Newsweek statistics, the academies’ students registered an average SAT score of 2100, the second highest of any U.S. high school. It was within that environment of overachievers that Savitskaya overachieved. One of her science teachers, Bob Pergolizzi, would open one of the school’s research labs for her on Saturday mornings. While typical 17-year-olds might be sleeping in or playing video games, she’d spend hours in the lab studying the biochemistry of short interference RNA, a class of molecules that play a variety of roles in biology.
Pergolizzi once joked with her that she would have lived in the lab had he given her the keys to the place. It’s no wonder that when she received the Student of the Month Award from the governor back in 2007, she had Pergolizzi accompany her to the ceremony.
When it came time to choose a college, Savitskaya knew she wanted to attend an institution that could provide her with a strong bio department. “I knew I wanted to do research,” she says.
Two universities in particular intrigued her: Cornell and Carnegie Mellon. Tough decision. She looked at the programs more closely, and here’s what she found:
“CMU has a small bio department with a really good student-prof ratio—Cornell has like 1,400 bio majors. I thought because of that ratio and because of the general culture at CMU, I would have better, more research opportunities and more personal relationships with my profs and research advisors; and, two, my peers in the bio department would also be doing undergraduate research. I wanted that sort of close-knit department environment where profs and students work closely together and lots of undergrads do research. Plus, I had started learning a bit of scientific programming and doing a little bit of mathematical biology, and I knew CMU was really good at computational science. I wanted to take a class or two in programming.”
There were a few other factors, too. “I received a generous tuition scholarship [from CMU] that definitely helped make my decision. And I liked Pittsburgh as a city—not too big, not too small, accessible from campus, but campus itself being separate and cohesive.”
Big Red’s loss was Tartan’s gain.
As a computational biology major with a concentration in neural computation, Savitskaya continued her high-school routine at Carnegie Mellon, spending hours in the lab studying how networks of neurons in the brain work. She did so by designing virtual networks in computer programs and simulating their behavior. Carnegie Mellon’s computer science expertise came in handy.
Her research evolved into analyzing neural networks—how a group of neurons send and receive information from each other and what neural arrangement produces optimal connectivity: “These properties of connections within small populations are meaningful. How do we connect them? How do they respond? What do we do with this information? Why is it useful?” In other words, she says she was figuring out what makes a brain tick. Doing so, she created “insights into how biological machines like neurons can process information, and that may lead to some insights into how the processing breaks down in neurological disease,” which can encompass conditions such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s. Her research also sparked her interest in synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is the engineering of biological organisms that evolution hasn’t created yet. Developing tumor-killing bacteria, organisms to create fuel, and biological “machines” to monitor blood sugar levels are just some of the applications of synthetic biology.
In posing the question to her friends about the next step in life after Carnegie Mellon, it seems obvious for her. She is going to end up in a research lab somewhere. For Sochol and Nacey, they have a handle on what they want to do, too. Sochol, who has been studying psychology and professional writing, plans to work in public relations or media in a large American-based market. Nacey, a chemical engineering student, has an appetizing way to put her degree to work. She plans to work in the food and beverages industry, where chemical engineers are very much in demand to formulate new products to meet consumer demand, change ingredients for better flavor, change handling processes for more consistent texture, and design aseptic packaging to ensure a longer shelf-life.
Amid nibbles of hummus spread on pita bread and a second bottle of red wine, the three students discuss their futures. Meanwhile, the sunset wind has become more biting in the darkening October sky. Perhaps they should move indoors to one of the tiny pubs that dot the landscape, where the menu seems to be fish & chips and more fish & chips.
Upon her return to Pittsburgh for the spring semester of her senior year, Savitskaya awaits some news that will have quite an impact on her immediate future. She had applied for the Churchill Scholarship. It’s offered by the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States and is one of the most prestigious awards for studying abroad in the United Kingdom. It funds a year of postgraduate study—tuition, fees, living expenses, and travel—at the University of Cambridge, which is one of the world’s oldest higher-education institutions and ranks first in the world in both the 2010 and 2011 QS World University Rankings. The scholarship, worth about $50,000, is given to outstanding American students who wish to pursue graduate studies in order “to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the sciences, engineering, or mathematics.”
Just a month into the semester, Savitskaya had an interview with Peter Patrikis, the executive director of the Winston Churchill Foundation. She left the meeting with some very good news and immediately called her mother, Inessa: “Mom, you’re going to have to come visit me in England,” Savitskaya exclaimed. Her mom cried “big tears of joy.”
Savitskaya is one of 14 students nationwide to receive the scholarship. The others completed their undergraduate studies at these institutions: Berkeley, Brown, Carleton, CIT, Columbia, Cornell, Iowa (2), Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Ohio State, Pomona, and Stanford.
She also continues quite a trend for Carnegie Mellon. Savitskaya is following in the alumnae footsteps of these recent Churchill Scholarship recipients.
- 2011-12, Rebecca Krall (S’11), who majored in physics at Carnegie Mellon
- 2010-11, Swati Varshney (CMU’10), who majored in chemistry and minored in biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon
- 2008-09, Courtney Ondeck (E’08), who had a dual major in materials science and engineering and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon
Like the three recent winners, Savitskaya worked closely with Stephanie Wallach and Jennifer Keating-Miller at CMU’s Fellowships and Scholarships Office on the extensive Churchill Scholarship application process, and she credits them with much of her success. “Because of their support, I feel like I’ve matured so much as a human being. There’s not a chance I could have done this without them,” she says.
Nathan Urban, head of the Department of Biological Sciences, thinks she is being overly modest. “Judy is a truly exceptional student who exemplifies much of what makes Carnegie Mellon students special. She is a deep and interdisciplinary thinker working at the interface between fields and has demonstrated remarkable intellectual maturity and ability.”
He’s also delighted that she received the Churchill Scholarship. “Going to Cambridge will give her the opportunity to work in the incredibly exciting new field of synthetic biology. I am very excited to hear about the work that she will do and the experiences she will have.”
Urban isn’t the only one excited. Savitskaya says the idea of going to Cambridge, where she will work in the lab of “world-class scientist” Jim Haseloff, thrills her. She knows her skills will be stretched for sure—perhaps in the same way that taking computer science classes at CMU stretched her intellectual limits. Everything had always come so easy to Savitskaya in high school, until that first CS class at CMU. But she persevered and ended up with an A in the class. “But Haseloff, that may be another story,” Savitskaya says. “He is a rock star in the field of synthetic biology.”
It’s true that Haseloff is considered a pioneer in the field in which scientists design and construct new biological parts and systems. Prior to joining the Department of Plant Sciences at Cambridge, he served as group leader at MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge and as a research fellow at Harvard Medical School. He leads the research team that Savitskaya will join this fall as she pursues her master of philosophy degree in plant sciences in the School of the Biological Sciences at Cambridge.
She will have come a long way from those Saturdays in her high school lab. But she says she won’t forget one of the lessons she learned there. Pergolizzi, her teacher, would tell her: what makes a world-class scientist is passion for understanding how things work and patience. Savitskaya believes she has both.
She says she won’t forget her days at Carnegie Mellon either, both the academic work and her good friends, in particular Sochol and Nacey. That sunset picnic in Ireland is a memory that will last a lifetime:
With the sun nearly fallen from the sky, the three friends take one last look at the majestic water. It seems so peaceful—the surface like glass. They pose together and snap a few final pictures. With the wine and hummus gone, Savitskaya, Sochol, and Nacey begin to walk along the path back to town. Their futures lie just ahead.
Emmett Zitelli (HNZ’01) of Pittsburgh is a former NFL football player. He is a writer for various publications and is a regular contributor to this magazine.
Photo credit: Howth, Ireland (page one), at dusk and (page 3) as seen by Jessica Sochol's camera. Additional photography by Judy Savitskaya