Student Athlete Lands HHMI Internship

March 8, 2013

Amanda Nagy

Molly Martorella in the lab
Molly Martorella.
Photo credit: Yvette Chen

Molly Martorella acknowledges that being a student athlete (and a double major, no less) takes hard work. Modesty, on the other hand, comes naturally. Ask her about her accomplishments on the track or in the classroom, and she explains with careful restraint that time management is everything to a student athlete.

Martorella, a junior from Winchendon, Massachusetts, has been making campus headlines since her sophomore year, when she became the first female in the 28-year history of the North Coast Athletic Conference to run a sub-five minute mile at the NCAC Indoor Championship Meet. In October 2012, she was named the NCAC Runner of the Year.

With speed on her side, the ability to juggle the demands of rigorous academics with a hectic schedule of sporting events is something she does well—again, with modesty—partly because it’s in her nature, and partly because Oberlin has cultivated a supportive environment for student athletes. “There’s good communication between professors and coaches. You also belong to this group of students undergoing the same experience, as well as contact with upperclassmen who have gone through the same thing. It’s a very helpful community,” she says.

This summer, Martorella can add another feather to her cap: She has been awarded a summer internship through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). Students are nominated to apply for the program by HHMI professors or directors of HHMI-funded undergraduate programs at colleges and universities. The program matches students with HHMI scientists who have volunteered to provide mentored research experiences.

Martorella has been paired with HHMI investigator Richard Huganir, professor and director of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Huganir’s research focuses on how memories are physically encoded in the brain, which has implications for many disorders and diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug addiction.

In addition to important research experience, students in the program attend meetings at HHMI headquarters, where they present their research in a poster session, network with their peers and HHMI scientists, and hear from scientists from various backgrounds and stages in their careers.

The opportunity is a potential career launcher, says Jason Belitsky, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry and Oberlin’s faculty representative for HHMI. “HHMI investigators are the leaders in the their fields. This is tremendous opportunity for an aspiring scientist at the beginning of her scientific career,” Belitsky says.   
Martorella says her ultimate research goal is to study affective disorders such as depression and anxiety. She also wants to pursue pharmaceuticals. Last summer, she conducted polymer research related to drug delivery platforms. Over winter term, she worked with Michael Nee, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, on the synthesis of organic molecules to be used in the preparation of new organic-silica hybrid materials.

“Molly has considerable promise as a scientist,” says Nee. “She had track training every day beginning at 3:30 p.m. She would think carefully about when to start experiments so that they would either be finished before she needed to leave or could be left unattended for several hours while she trained. She was well organized, and her lab work and training went seamlessly during winter term. Not all of the experiments went as we had hoped, but Molly was never discouraged. She was engaged with the project and came up with several suggestions for improving parts of some experiments. Curiosity, organization, and persistence are very important traits for a scientist.”

Martorella says she was drawn to Oberlin because of its leading-edge science programs, particularly neuroscience, and the faculty-student collaboration. “At Oberlin, you’re surrounded by people who are intellectually curious. It’s refreshing and inspiring,” she says.

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