Nurturing a passion for science
"Science is a roller-coaster," says Mike Molloy, a Ph.D. student in immunology. "There are good days and there are bad, highs and lows—you don't make grand discoveries every day."
But that hasn't dimmed his passion for his chosen field. In fact, Molloy was drawn to Dartmouth by what he perceived to be a community of investigators who not only, in his words, "do great science," but who haven't lost their enthusiasm for their work or become disenchanted in the face of the ever-present need to secure grant funding. "It's a tough process and it can wear people down," says Molloy. "When I was looking at graduate programs, I wanted to avoid that. People seemed happier here at Dartmouth."
For the past three and a half years, Molloy has worked in the lab of Dr. Edward Usherwood, studying the immune response to viral infections and probing how immunological memory is formed. "The complexity of the immune system is fascinating to me," says Molloy. "Understanding how it works at a deeper level is something I really want to pursue, because it holds such promise for people who are sick—there are few things relevant to disease that it can't affect." Already, Molloy's research has resulted in three first-author publications, with another one pending. Now in his final year of graduate study, Molloy is a recipient of a fellowship endowed by Dr. William Thomas, DC '52 and DMS '59.
The fellowship that was established through Thomas's generosity honors John L. Copenhaver, Jr., who, as a young a biochemistry professor at Dartmouth, ignited in Thomas the same passion for science that Molloy has found at Dartmouth today. Few would guess that Thomas, now retired from a noteworthy career as an orthopaedic surgeon in the Boston, Mass., area, flunked out of Dartmouth College as an undergrad. Having qualified for the Naval Aviation Cadet program at the start of his junior year, Thomas grew more interested in flying airplanes than in his academic studies. "I kept thinking that I'd get called any minute for the cadet program," he says. "I didn't even buy books for some of my courses, and my exams and grades reflected my lack of attention."
After four years of service as a dive-bomber pilot and jet-instrument instructor, Thomas set his sights on becoming a physician. The fact that Dartmouth College—and then the Medical School—were willing to give him a second chance academically is something for which Thomas is deeply grateful. "If it hadn't been for Dartmouth and DMS, I'd probably have done far less satisfying work," he says.
Upon returning to school, Thomas found a mentor and friend in John Copenhaver, a biochemist and cell biologist who was part of a new wave of young faculty members hired by then-President John Sloan Dickey. "He was the one who really turned me on academically," says Thomas.
That lifelong friendship, as well as Thomas's enduring gratitude to Dartmouth, has motivated his generosity to the College and the Medical School over many years. In addition to endowing the fellowship, Thomas has made annual gifts to the Fund for DMS, contributed to a DMS scholarship fund established by his father, and provided for DMS in his estate plans.
The John H. Copenhaver, Jr., and William H. Thomas, M.D., 1952 Junior Fellowship is awarded each year to one or two students in the Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) graduate program who have demonstrated exceptional scholarship and potential. Dartmouth's MCB program includes a range of scientific disciplines—including biochemistry—and typically has about 160 graduate students. Awards of this kind provide essential support for young investigators whose passion and commitment will drive future discoveries. Joining Molloy this year in being honored with the prestigious Copenhaver-Thomas Fellowship is Christen DiPetrillo, a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Smith, a cell biologist.
"We have outstanding graduate students, and they deserve recognition for their important contributions to our research," says Dr. Brent Berwin, director of the MCB program. "This fellowship is the only award of its kind in our program, and the highest honor we can give to a senior student. The future of science really belongs to promising young researchers like Mike and Christen and their peers."
Beyond the direct benefits to the recipients, Berwin notes, the Fellowship has "widespread ripple effects." In addition to providing support for selected students, it also brings additional funds into the lab in which they work. That, in turn, can have real benefits for the Fellowship recipients and their peers by advancing the lab's research activities. "This is an all-good sort of thing," says Berwin.
This spring, Molloy will complete his Ph.D. and begin work as a scientist at the National Institutes of Health. "Having a fellowship like this is certainly beneficial to my career," he says. "But even more importantly, the recognition of my work by my mentors here at Dartmouth who selected me for this means so much to me."