March 09, 2010

Grad students to rub elbows with Nobel laureates

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill -- Two graduate students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale this summer will rub elbows with top researchers in the world after receiving an invitation to an exclusive gathering of Nobel Prize winners.

Michael J. Flister, of Springfield, and Laura L. Walkup, up Carbondale, will attend the 2010 Nobel Laureate meeting in Lindau, Germany, June 27-July 2. The event will feature interdisciplinary researchers who have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, physics and physiology or medicine.

The Oak Ridge Associated Universities, U.S. Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health sponsor only about 75 graduate students for this prestigious event, which features a week of sharing time with the Nobel laureates and international students, along with lectures and small group meetings with the researchers.

John A. Koropchak, vice chancellor for research and dean of the graduate school at SIUC, nominated Flister and Walkup for the honor.

“Lindau provides an opportunity for graduate students to engage in detailed discussions with many great scientists and thinkers who have won the Nobel Prize,” Koropchak said. “Only about 75 students from the U.S. are selectedfor this honor; to have two students from SIUC on the team is a source of pride for us. And I'm sure that it will be a fabulous experience for both Laura and Michael.”

The annual Nobel Laureate meeting began in 1951, gathering the prize winners in Lindau, Germany, a picturesque, medieval island city on Lake Constance in the southwestern portion of the country. About 800 students from 70 countries will attend this year’s meeting. Laureates lecture on topics of their choice during morning sessions and participate in informal discussions with students during the afternoons and evening.

To be eligible, Flister and Walkup must have competed at least two but not more than four years toward a doctoral degree in one of the subject areas related to those represented at the event. They also are required to be U.S. citizens currently enrolled at a university as a full-time graduate student.

Organizers also expect the students to have records of high achievement in the studies and other activities.

Flister is pursuing a doctorate in medical microbiology, immunology and cell biology. In 2007, he won a three-year pre-doctoral fellowship from the defense department for breast cancer research, beating out 280 other applicants for the honor. In 2009, he placed second for his presentation at the Annual Trainee Symposium at the SIU School of Medicine after taking first place in 2008. He also was a finalist in the American Association of Cancer Research’s Scholar-in-Training Award in 2009, among several other awards. He also published abstracts and articles in journals.

Flister said he believes graduate school is much more than “books and bench work.”

“Equally important are the experiences, interactions, and collaborations with other scientists that shape one’s education,” he said. “Attending (the event) is important to my graduate education because this is rare opportunity that even as an established researcher I may never have again. Not only I will be able to attend lectures that can influence the future direction of my career, I can also meet the most significant people in modern science, an experience that I will never forget. “Undoubtedly, the Nobel laureates also started their distinguished careers as young graduate students and must have a wealth of information and experience from which one can learn how to launch a successful career in research. I am confident that if I am able to absorb just a fraction of their knowledge and experiences, I will benefit tremendously both on professional and personal levels,” he said.

Sophia Ran, associate professor of medical microbiology, immunology and cell biology at the SimmonsCooper Cancer Institute at the SIU School of Medicine, said Flister is “very bright, motivated, well-organized, meticulous and determined person,” who is a gifted public speaker and a well-published young researcher.

“Without question, Mike’s accomplishments and insights confirm that he is a highly intelligent, devoted doctoral student that would benefit greatly from interaction with the brightest scientific minds of our time,” she said.

Walkup, who attended high school in Carterville, is pursuing a doctorate in physical chemistry. She was a 2004-2008 SIUC Chancellor’s Scholarship recipient, earning multiple dean’s list honors and wining second place for her poster presentation at the 2006 undergraduate research poster contest. She has held multiple offices with Alpha Chi Sigma professional chemistry fraternity, including North Central District council member, chapter president, vice president and reporter, as well as serving as instructor for SIUC chemistry courses and laboratories. She also has published articles in journals and conducted conference presentations.

The daughter of a career Army engineer who worked with her on mathematics from a young age, Walkup said she would be honored to represent SIUC at the event.

“I want the opportunity to connect with the greatest minds in science, to listen and discuss and imagine, and ultimately to be inspired to use my skills and ideas to make the world a better place,” she said. “By meeting with the laureates, I intend to challenge myself to develop a broader perspective of the world around me and to generate new ideas and collaborations with others.”

Boyd Goodson, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at SIUC, said Walkup is an excellent teacher, a “hard-working, diligent and intelligent researcher” and an outstanding student who challenged herself with difficult courses as both an undergraduate and graduate student, earning top grades in all of them.

“I doubt that there are more than a handful of students on this campus who could achieve that combined feat, and I can think of no others who have actually done it,” Goodson said. “I offer my highest recommendation for Laura to attend the (event). She is clearly most deserving of this opportunity. There’s no question that given Laura’s scientific aptitude but limited opportunities to visit other countries and interact with eminent scientists from around the world, her attendance at the Lindau meeting would be a particularly rewarding experience for her and would have a major impact on her development as a future scientist and mentor.”