October 22, 2014

Turning down a Fulbright for Cambridge

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Emily Bruce thought science was boring until midway through high school.

“I didn’t understand it, I didn’t see how it was useful, and it certainly wasn’t exciting to me,” the 22-year-old Williston resident said recently. “Before junior year of high school, I would have said you were crazy if you said I was going to end up in a Master of Philosophy in Biological Science program.”

Come fall, Bruce will be studying exactly that – pathology in particular – through a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. The Vassar College graduating senior will spend her year in Cambridge conducting research on influenza-A.

Her science mind is built on an array of experiences. For the last two summers, she’s been at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in an undergraduate research program studying a protein that may affect the HIV infection process. Last spring, she studied in Mongolia, and conducted research for the World Health Organization on the availability of diagnostic tests for nomadic herders. On Monday, she turned in her biochemistry senior thesis, and her lab work continues until graduation, on what proteins interact with the protein Copine A.

“We don’t know a whole lot about how these proteins function, but they’re present in almost every organism, including humans,” Bruce said. “If you discover more about how it works, it can help in ways you can’t foresee.”

Jamie Bruce, Emily’s father, who himself has a Ph.D. in chemistry, said when his daughter began to express an interest in science, it was in molecular biology and “teeny tiny things” – what was happening at a cellular or sub-cellular level.

“She was always very detail oriented,” he said of his daughter. “She would design and make her own doll clothes, not bothering with sewing machines and patterns and things like that. So that attention to detail was sort of present from a very early age.”

Emily Bruce said it was Champlain Valley Union High School teacher David Ely who directly inspired her pursuit of science. When she took Advanced Placement Biology her junior year, that’s when her thoughts about science changed dramatically.

“It really made me think it was possible for me to go out and do scientific research and be able to change people’s lives,” Bruce said. “He made that seem like a feasible reality and incredibly exciting.”

Bruce said she’s not run across anyone in college who had the kind of high school preparation she had in A.P. Biology.

“His final exam was probably harder than the MCAT,” Bruce said, referring to the entrance exam for medical schools.

As a junior, Bruce began doing independent research with Ely, who helped her write her first grant for $500 from the Vermont Council of Arts and Sciences.

“Now I’m in a world of $18 million grants,” she said with a quiet laugh.

Bruce credits other high school and middle school teachers, and her parents, for encouraging her to pursue her varied interests. She also loves arts and crafts, has played the flute for 14 years (though she says she doesn’t have the natural musical talent of either of her younger sisters), and is interested in current events, political science, human rights and travel – all of which she traces back to the flexibility to explore during her days in Swift House at Williston Central School.

Though a few weeks ago she was offered a Fulbright Scholarship to Sweden, also to do immunology research, she chose Cambridge in part based on her time in Mongolia.

That semester, Bruce said was “amazing, unforgettable, truly life changing.” But the language barrier caused isolation and loneliness, she said, neither of which she would experience at Cambridge with roughly 100 other Gates scholars. Fulbright scholars are spread around the world.

After Cambridge, Bruce will still have many years of schooling ahead. She will enter an M.D./Ph.D. program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York City.

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