As I sat in Reiss 103 my first week at Georgetown University for professor Heidi Elmendorf’s “Foundations in Biology I” lecture, I felt unsettled. I entered Georgetown with a declared biology major, but “declared” implied a sense of confidence I did not feel. I was unsure of whether I would become passionate about an aspect of biology, of what it meant to be a Georgetown student and of what I was working toward.
During the first week of Foundations, we learned about enzymes, proteins that accelerate chemical reactions by holding the reactant molecules in a particular position to facilitate the proper exchange of electrons. To catalyze a chemical reaction, an enzyme must be folded into a particular conformation that allows the enzyme to properly bind its substrates. Enzymes are often held in this appropriate conformation by small molecules called cofactors.
I am fond of cofactors. I appreciate how, despite their structural simplicity, these helper molecules play a crucial role in helping enzymes achieve their ultimate purpose. As I reflect on my time at Georgetown, I recognize I am indebted to the people who have acted in a cofactor-like capacity for me and have played an invaluable role in positioning me to learn and grow.
My first-year roommate helped me feel at home at Georgetown, providing a constant source of support that allowed me to adjust to my new environment. Just as a cofactor stabilizes an enzyme in the proper shape through electrostatic interactions, my roommate provided emotional support and stability as I adjusted to the many new elements of college. We coordinated when to leave Lauinger Library each night so that we could walk home together and share the high and low points of our days. We sought advice from each other about what clubs to apply for and what classes to take. Cofactors enable enzymes to bind their substrates; similarly, my roommate’s willingness to listen, advise, commiserate and celebrate encouraged me to open myself up to new opportunities during my first year at Georgetown.
Support from other students in the biology department allowed me to bridge the gap between being a biology major and a biologist. Wanting to further explore my interest in the field, I joined Shaun Brinsmade’s microbiology lab my sophomore year. The other members of the Brinsmade Lab have acted as cofactors for me in my development as a student and a scientist. When demonstrating lab techniques, the older students in the lab made sure I understood the underlying scientific principles in addition to the mere mechanics of the technique. The graduate students took the time to tell me about their own projects and offer advice. These students were cofactors in the way they made me feel like a valued member of the lab and made the lab a safe place for me to experiment, fail and try again.
My professors have also acted as invaluable cofactors, propelling my personal and professional development alongside my academic growth. My first year biology adviser’s encouragement to minor in English simply because I love the subject helped convince me to pursue an area of study that has proven professionally useful — allowing me to more effectively communicate my scientific findings and hypotheses — in addition to personally fulfilling. The English professor who extended their office hours to talk to me about my future aspiration of becoming a physician bolstered my confidence to pursue my professional goals. These professors shaped and supported my choices, catalyzing my academic and professional growth.
Analogous to the way in which an enzyme often requires a cofactor molecule to fold into the proper shape to facilitate a chemical reaction, my growth at Georgetown has hinged on the actions of these people who have supported me along the way. As I begin my final semester, I am grateful for those who have acted as cofactors for me. Furthermore, I am determined to make a more conscious effort to support the people around me on their own journeys of growth and self-discovery. I encourage other students to identify and to be grateful for the people who act in a cofactor-like capacity for them at Georgetown and in other contexts. Recognize those who support your choices, shift your mindset, broaden your worldview or in some other way position you to learn and to grow. And I challenge Georgetown students and faculty to learn from this molecular example and make an effort to act as cofactors for those around them.
Sarah Reuter is a senior in the College. Molecular Musings appears online every other Wednesday.