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Summer 2002

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Personal commitment fuels science study

by Kathryn Gallien

     In the months before graduation, Heather DiPietrantonio ’02 crisscrossed the campus completing a body of work in both ceramics and biology. By the time she graduated (Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude), she had made her mark on both sides of the quad, at a college she admits she originally came to “by default” after not getting into Tufts or Smith. Their loss; Skidmore’s gain. And now it will be Harvard’s turn. Come fall, she will begin work there on her Ph.D. in biological and biomedical science, with a focus on stem-cell research.
     “She’ll make an excellent colleague as a graduate student and scientist,” says Skidmore biologist Bernard Possidente, who notes that in addition to being bright, serious, inquisitive, and hard-working, DiPietrantonio is “not afraid to express her opinions.”
     She will tell you, for instance, that with her wheelchair it was “very difficult living on campus.” Her dorm room and bathroom were handicapped-accessible, but the rest of the dorm, with no elevator, was not. So she moved to an apartment in town with a good elevator, a guaranteed parking place, and a landlord who cleared the snow off her car. “I just deal with things as they come,” says DiPietrantonio, who notes that overall campus accessibility is quite good. And her own efforts have brought improvements: she convinced the college to buy a handicapped-access pottery wheel. Before it was in place, DiPietrantonio had to work “sitting sidesaddle,” according to ceramics professor Regis Brodie. “Her bright spirit and ‘can do’ attitude are exemplary,” says Brodie. “She has taught me a great deal more than I taught her.”
     Making earth-toned bowls and vases was a rewarding counterbalance to her long hours in the lab, but DiPietrantonio’s first love is scientific research. She worked for two semesters with biologist Elaine Rubenstein, completing a senior thesis that explored the utilization and enzymatic digestion of yolk proteins during embryonic development of zebrafish—work she presented at the annual Sigma Xi student research conference. “Heather’s laboratory work is excellent,” says Rubenstein, “She has rare scientific creativity. She draws connections among many ideas and incorporates these into her thinking.” For her part, DiPietrantonio says, “Skidmore was great for learning techniques and preparing for grad school. It’s a huge advantage being at a small liberal arts college.”
     Last summer DiPietrantonio held an internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where her work with pediatric asthma specialist Joshua Boyce ’81 on mast-cell allergy research included cloning two genes. And this summer, before heading off to Harvard—which she chose over her other offers, from Duke, Johns Hopkins, and Washington at St. Louis—she’s studying angiogenesis (blood vessel formation) at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute.
     DiPietrantonio’s passion derives in part from family circumstances. She wants to pursue stem-cell research because of its potential therapeutic value in autoimmune and other conditions. Findings might some day help her sixteen-year-old sister, “who has both an autoimmune disease (Crohn’s) and a genetic disorder (polycystic kidney disease),” says DiPietrantonio. While her own spinal stroke six years ago did get her thinking about the possibility of stem-cell transplants for replacing damaged nerve tissue, she is less sanguine about the research benefiting her. “Probably not in my lifetime,” she says calmly.
     There are three types of stem cell: embryonic stem cells that are already available in fertility clinics, adult stem cells in blood, and germ-line stem cells from fetal tissue. It is the issue of harvesting, or fabrication, of fetal stem cells that has caused a national uproar and led to cries of foul from anti-abortion groups and grim prognostications about human cloning. DiPietrantonio does not advocate “people cloning people,” but she believes stem-cell research holds powerful potential: “There are so many diseases that might be cured.” She is also worried about the long haul, given current government restrictions on stem-cell research. “So much,” she says, “depends on how far President Bush sets us back.” It is a hot topic that invariably draws her into long discussions when people ask about her research interests. “I’m educating myself on the ethical issues,” she says, “and I learned a lot in my graduate school interviews.”
     Mostly she enjoys focusing on the science itself, “the process of discovery.” At Skidmore, she says, she “learned how to ask the right questions. Now I am very much looking forward to designing and executing my own experiments.” As a bonus, she adds, “It’s rewarding to know that my work may one day help people live healthier lives.”

In recent Scopes, Kathryn Gallien profiled a foreign-aid nurse, New York State’s budget director, and Skidmore’s North Woods.

 


© 2002 Skidmore College