Much has been written about Newtown, Conn. It can be tempting to try and forget, but a year and a half later, there are chapters to this story that are still in the process of being written and that should be told. One of these chapters is coming to a close over the next few weeks at Georgetown University.
My research laboratory at Georgetown has always harbored fiercely intelligent, hard-working young scholars who accomplish great things. Our close colleague Katy Sherlach, who will complete her doctorate in chemistry at Georgetown this semester, lost her mom in the Newtown tragedy. The grief that my research group felt Dec. 14, 2012, cannot be properly described with words.
Most young scientists will tell you that it is a special privilege to be a member of “the group,” a relatively small collection of equally stressed-out colleagues (postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students) that work, elbow to elbow, in the research laboratory. In attempting to describe the group, I recall how the doctoral students I’ve worked with can be so very passionate, idealistic and disciplined, and how this then defines the style of the entire group.
I am routinely impressed by how they manage to do good science, regardless of what might intrude. They go without food or sleep to finish an experiment in the middle of the night, they delay steps in their personal lives to devote more time to research and they forgo increased income they could easily accumulate elsewhere. Blossoming professionals in other disciplines do these things as well, but most doctoral students in the natural sciences do this while enduring particularly frustrating dead-end experiments, a lack of recognition, low pay, high risk and repeated criticism of their work during laborious oral and written exams.
Doing science is a great joy, but it is also a very tough business. Everyone in the group understands this, so, along the way, we work together so that our tasks become just a little less difficult. Over the past 25 years, watching this style perpetuate in my laboratory, it has been my great privilege to lead various reincarnations of the group.
But never more so than since December 2012. This wasn’t the usual type of intrusion or difficulty that we encounter as a group. It is unthinkable that a young doctoral student should need to overcome such a thing. It is unthinkable that anyone should.
The group was overwhelmed; all we could do was grieve with Katy and her family. We flailed about, trying to watch over our colleague. In keeping with her character, Katy did the same for us. Magically, along the way, Katy’s dedication to her science never faltered. If anything, it grew. In part because she knew her mom wanted it that way, in part because good scientists simply never give up.
As I write this, Katy is hard at work putting the finishing touches on her doctoral dissertation and preparing for graduation. I write this because I feel a particularly powerful urge to publically state how very proud I am of her and of the group.
Katy will be embarrassed at my boasting, but her story is important. She was the first student back in the laboratory after the 2012 Christmas break. Failed experiments come and go for her as usual, as they do for everyone, but overall her data has been pretty neat, and this year Katy has contributed to a real breakthrough or two. Her dissertation means more than usual.
Since December 2012, the group witnessed an outpouring of support from many people. Whether they realize it or not, all have been appointed honorary members of our geeky little club. They know who they are — I will not list their names — but they include police officers, Georgetown faculty from multiple campuses, administrators and staff, students that know Katy, students that have never even met her and a diverse set of other friends, relatives and new acquaintances we “met on the road” from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut and back again. To all of you, the group thanks you deeply for your concern and help.
This chapter of the story draws to a close with the realization that unexpected brutality and tragedy have not defined the group, and they certainly have not defined Katy. Idealism, a love of science and a special passion for doing good continue to define Katy, as they always have. The group is an amazing thing to watch.
Paul D. Roepe is a professor of chemistry (main campus) and biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology (medical campus).