Patricia Wittkopp (BS, Honors Cellular & Molecular Biology, 1997), Faculty Speaker at the Honors Program 2014 Graduation Ceremony, appreciates the “little moments and decisions that seem small at the time, but end up having a big effect on our lives.” As she prepares her address for the May 2nd event, she reflected on her own trajectory, from undergraduate to Associate Professor at U-M.
Wittkopp acknowledges that she was always a good student, ticking off required courses and receiving academic accolades, but she also says that she was not aggressive about seeking out opportunities. She would have missed the chance to do research if Honors had not required a thesis or if a professor had not reached out to her. The research opportunity this professor offered required studying fruit flies.
You might think that looking at fruit flies all day, particularly noting whether their eye’s appearance is smooth or bumpy, would not open many doors. But, Wittkopp says, “the genes that were causing these different types of eyes are the same genes that cause cancer in some people”. During her senior year, this research uncovered a surprising amount of diversity in these genes among flies captured at the local Kerrytown Fruit Market. This same type of genetic diversity is found in human populations and is part of the reason that some people are more likely to develop cancer than others, she says. Although spending hours day-after-day looking at fly’s eyes under a microscope was monotonous, Wittkopp was driven by the opportunity to discover something “that nobody else knows”. This work resulted in her first academic publication and a coveted spot in one of the top Genetics graduate programs in the country.
It’s true, she says, that most experiments in the lab fail, that research takes persistence, that there are many long and frustrating hours, but this is where the excitement begins. Classes usually teach you about what is already known; the lab is a place to find out about the unknown. The same is true, according to Wittkopp, about the thesis experience required of Honors graduates.
“Writing a thesis requires learning something new about the world, collecting new information or synthesizing existing information in new ways,” says Wittkopp. This process requires skills that are very valuable in our everyday lives. How do we know what we know? How do we know what is and isn’t true? “Research encourages us not to simply take information that we are given at face value, but rather to question it and reach our own conclusions.” Wittkopp also describes the thesis experience as something that, through the process of “wonder,” gives the student a new perspective on expertise.
Now, with appointments in several departments, including the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, Center for Statistical Genetics, Program in the Biomedical Sciences, and Department of Computational Medicine and Biology, Wittkopp provides research opportunities for many Honors (and non-honors) students in her own laboratory. Being able to pursue her love of genetics, which began in high school and flourished in both undergraduate and graduate studies, is clearly a rewarding career.