Curiosity leads local grad to science career at Berkeley

The following was published in The Brookville Democrat newspaper in November 2013.

By Melanie Padgett Powers, Special Contributor

Livy Wilz did not have a toy chemistry set in elementary school. She did not conduct experiments in her backyard. She did not have any of the stereotypical characteristics we imagine a future scientist might hold. What she did have was curiosity.

“If you have a curiosity for discovering new things, there’s a wide world of science out there,” she said.

Wilz, the 2005 salutatorian of Franklin County High School (F.C.H.S.) is a biochemist. She is earning her PhD at the University of California at Berkeley, where she has been a researcher for the past five years. She is the daughter of Mick and Jenny Wilz of Brookville.

Wilz works in the Schekman Lab, run by principal investigator Randy W. Schekman,  professor of molecular and cell biology at Berkeley. Earlier this year, Schekman won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his role in showing how proteins in yeast cells are transported and secreted. He shares the award with two other researchers, James Rothman of Yale University and Thomas Südhof of Stanford University.

In February 2013, Wilz joined Schekman’s research team of about 16 people after switching labs when the head of her original lab moved away. She conducts her own research experiments and reports back to Schekman. Currently, she is working with human cancer cells grown in petri dishes to study a process called “autophagy,” which means “self-eating” in Greek.

“When a cell starves or becomes damaged, autophagy gets activated,” she explained. “This causes the cell to eat part of itself in order to survive the immediate problem. This can be good or bad for you. For example, it keeps your delicate neurons alive and healthy as you age but also keeps cancer cells alive while they grow into large tumors. It’s such an important part of life, but it hasn’t been studied that much yet.”

Wilz’s research is her job; she doesn’t attend class, working instead in the lab up to 50 hours a week. Berkeley pays her tuition and provides a small salary or “stipend” in exchange for her research efforts.

Wilz will probably spend another two years in the Schekman Lab before completing her thesis and earning her PhD. Then, she’ll likely become a “post-doc” at another university. A “post-doc” is someone who has earned his or her PhD and is conducting research under a different mentor to gain further expertise. Wilz is interested in doing research examining Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or Huntington’s diseases, which can sometimes start after autophagy fails.

Wilz learned Schekman won the Nobel Prize when her mom called her at 5:30 am California time. Jenny heard the news on NPR and pulled her car over to the side of the road to confirm it online, before calling her daughter. Schekman received notification by phone earlier that morning, at 1:30.

The news was not a shock to the lab, although it was still a great honor and reason to celebrate. In 2002, Schekman received the Lasker Award for basic and clinical research, considered a precursor to the Nobel. But then 11 years went by.

Now that he’s won, “the big joke at Berkeley is he gets a free parking spot for life,” Wilz said. Her unassuming professor chose his current parking spot, which will simply be upgraded with a sign for him. And, the day after he won, he taught his freshman seminar class.

To celebrate the Nobel, the entire research team wore fake mustaches, like Schekman’s, and toasted with champagne. Wilz plans to watch his Nobel acceptance speech, which is scheduled to air live in December.

Wilz is a proud graduate of Indiana University (I.U.), where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. She wants people to know how much a large Midwestern public university  can offer students, including future scientists. She was an honors student at I.U. and was awarded the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship in the science and engineering category. She also studied abroad for a semester in Florence, Italy.

She had not been sure where she wanted to go to college until she visited I.U. “I realized it was a huge, diverse campus that has all of these state-of-the-art things going on,” she said. “You don’t realize there’s such a great school so close to home.”

Also, I.U. has world-recognized research laboratories, which not all colleges have. For students considering becoming a researcher, Wilz recommends attending a college with a strong research program so they can try it out before graduation. “I.U. has a great program for getting undergrads involved in research,” she said.

Wilz didn’t become enamored with science until she took a chemistry class with teacher Steve Ludwig her sophomore year at F.C.H.S. Her curiosity was piqued by the experiments, and she took two more chemistry classes before graduation.

Wilz said she felt alone in high school because she was one of the only students she knew who loved science—and wasn’t planning on becoming a doctor or pharmacist. She advises students passionate about a field that is unique from their classmates’ interests to “stick to your guns.”

“What’s being taught in the classrooms is what’s already been discovered. … What’s exciting about science is using our curiosity and creativity to discover what’s never been done before,” she said.

Although students should have strong grades, Wilz said they shouldn’t worry if they are not considered a “math whiz” or the best in their class in science. Her freshman year of college Wilz panicked a little when she realized many of her science-minded classmates came from elite, private college-prep schools from across the country.

“If you aren’t great at the classes, stick to it,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you won’t be a great researcher. What makes a good scientist is creativity. … Hard works makes you better, more than anything else.”

Wilz would love to be a mentor to Indiana students interested in a career in science. If you have questions, feel free to email her. You can also learn more about her lab at http://mcb.berkeley.edu/labs/schekman.

This newspaper gives a special thanks to local teachers Kathy O’Bryan and Karen Negangard, who taught Wilz in elementary school. They notified us of Wilz’s success and did early reporting for this article. 

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