Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Undergraduate Issue

Volume 26 Number 2
Spring 2004

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Laura Slieker
Laura Slieker
©2004 Tyagan Miller


Choosing Science

Would Albert Einstein have made a good ecologist? What if Charles Darwin had chosen astronomy instead of natural history? It is hard to imagine Einstein having chosen something other than particle physics, or Darwin, the natural world. But how do scientists start their careers? What makes them choose science? The destinies of notable scientists are driven by intriguing scientific questions, of course, but it may be the people in scientists' lives—family, academic mentors, and others—who make the most difference in their fates.

Scientists often credit graduate school professors, but inspiration to join a general area of science usually starts earlier, when a young researcher-to-be emulates an imaginative high school teacher or, later, a colorful science professor. Sometimes, students choose science in response to a clarifying life experience.

When chemistry junior Laura Slieker, of Carmel, Ind., began her undergraduate studies at Indiana University Bloomington, she'd made up her mind to major in German, which she speaks with great facility. Under no circumstances would she ever become a scientist—that is, if Eli Lilly and Co. biochemist Lawrence Slieker, her father, had a say in the matter. Lawrence had toiled enough long hours in the laboratory for two lifetimes. He wanted to spare his daughter the stress and drudgery that go along with science's sporadic "Eureka!" moments.

Laura had planned to oblige, despite her childhood love for math, logic puzzles, and science. She decided to pursue chemistry as a secondary major, but in September 2002, something happened to endow the science side with new purpose: Her father was diagnosed with colon cancer, his prognosis uncertain.

"Lilly was giving free screenings," Laura recalls. "My dad took them up on the offer on a whim. But every test after that brought back worse news. Eventually they found it was cancer, and he was treated."

Lawrence Slieker recently completed chemotherapy and seems to be recovering well. The scare left its mark on Laura's life, nonetheless.

"I do like chemistry for its own sake," Laura says. "Its puzzle-solving nature appeals to my mind. But now I feel something else—a sense of obligation because I know what needs to be done in the field for suffering patients."

The main vein of hope for cancer patients is a vigorous international effort to identify and develop drugs that can slow cancer cells' growth or kill the cells outright. While some of these drugs occur naturally in plants and can be harvested�the Pacific Yew tree, for example, produces the anti-cancer drug Taxol�demand for the drugs almost always exceeds the ability of plants to provide them.

One goal of the pharmaceutical branch of organic chemistry is to develop laboratory recipes for complex drugs like Taxol. That task isn't easy—some pharmaceutical recipes may have 100 or more steps, and many steps usually mean diminished efficiency. Even though a scientist may start out with cheap chemicals, the long, laborious process of creating a drug synthetically can still end up being costly. The development of synthetic drugs requires an organic chemist to look at a problem and find the simple, cheap solution that no one else has proposed.

IUB chemist P. Andrew Evans, Slieker's laboratory supervisor since March 2003, recently recommended her for the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, citing organic chemistry breakthroughs she has accomplished in his lab. Among these, she helped uncover new flexibilities in allylic substitution, an important chemical reaction that is used in many syntheses. "Laura has the intellect and determination to become an excellent scientist," Evans says.

Ever the puzzle solver, Laura has figured out how she can continue her scientific training while also fulfilling her love for German. In February this year, she began a year's study abroad at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universitat Freiburg (Germany) with a concentration in organic chemistry.

"I find the language, more than others, to be a very logical puzzle," she says. "Of course, I also like the way German sounds when people are talking about chemistry."

—David Bricker