Doctor (Spatafora) Without Borders

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At this point in my Middlebury academic career, I figured the trajectory of my Molecular Biology/Biochemistry concentration would be coming to a plateau, a stasis. The departmental requirements have been fulfilled, my current thesis project is well underway, and I am on a first name basis with most of my professors. Never did I think that the spring semester of my senior year would be anything but a gratifying reflection of the past four years.

Molecular Genetics is a course that broadly examines the function and structure of genes at the molecular scale. The field it encompasses is continually evolving, however, for all intents and purposes, that which occurs at the undergraduate level is pretty standardized. Professor Grace Spatafora begs to differ. She approaches our course through an applied lens, conveying material not in isolation, but in the context of medical case studies. DNA replication becomes Werner Syndrome. Epigenetics becomes Rett Syndrome. Such a strategy opens up avenues for exploration that could not even be fathomable with traditional textbook learning. The laboratory section is no exception. Instead of simply developing techniques relevant to molecular genetics, we are applying them in a semester-long, novel investigation. If you insist, our project studies the properties of a protein that belongs to a cavity-causing bacterium.

Such a unique course structure would be nothing without a competent instructor to direct it. Dr. Spatafora may be one of the most enthusiastic yet disciplined, brilliant yet accessible, and quirky yet grounded professors I have had the pleasure of engaging. She is the type who will belabor a point until absolutely everyone in the class understands it. She is the type who intermixes “conformation-specific yeast two-hybrid system” with “gashalt” (Still don’t know what that means, though I think it is of Yiddish origin) and “truckload.” But most importantly, she is the type whose passion for biology is infectious and tangible. This is evidenced after each one of our class meetings, when I am so invigorated, so inspired that the only way I can express myself is by proudly declaring, “SCIENCE!”

Thanks to Dr. Spatafora, the proverbial senioritis will not be a case study to be examined. If anything, she should see herself as one its most potent remedies.

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