MEET UBER-NERD SHANNEN CRAVENS
“People have mistaken me for a professor ever since I was a sophomore. A couple months ago I was in the elevator and a freshman asked me if I was accepting any research students into my lab this summer. I laughed and explained, ‘No, no, I’m a senior.’
It’s amusing to me, but I also take it as a compliment. I’ve gotten to know the faculty here really well and I’m around them a lot and I’m always working in the lab, so maybe people just assume. I think that’s really just a tribute to how open this department is.
I took chemistry in high school for the first time and absolutely loved it. I wasn’t deterred by the difficulty of it; I just found it really fascinating. The idea that if you’re staring at a table and you realize it’s not just a table — it’s made up of all these tiny little atoms — I thought that was just really crazy and exciting.
I think coming to USD was probably the best decision I’ve made so far. It came down to USD, USC and UC Santa Barbara. I visited all three schools and met with someone from the chemistry department at each one. USD was my last stop. I met with Dr. Herrinton and he showed me the classrooms, labs and research facilities — and then he told me I could get a research project here my freshman year.
That totally blew me out of the water because it was unlike anything I’d heard anywhere else. The other schools basically said, ‘Wait until you grow up’ and become a graduate student. Honestly, I thought Dr. Herrinton was just making that up, but it convinced me to come here and then I literally got onto a research project my freshman year. So I guess he was telling the truth.
I joined Dr. Tammy Dwyer’s lab in January 2008. I was really interested in trying to understand how drug molecules interact with DNA. So if you have an anti-tumor drug, we know that it binds to DNA, but the question is how does it figure out where to bind? How is the drug actually reading the DNA sequence?
So what we do is take these molecules that look like DNA (but don’t act like DNA necessarily) and we use Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy and put them into a sequence to see if and how a drug binds to it. We analyze the data and make a computer model out of it so we can actually see the 3-D structure of the drug bound to the DNA.
It took about two and a half years to really get the project together and working properly but it resulted in a publication for us — which was fantastic. It never crossed my mind that an undergraduate could publish, let alone write the manuscript. Dr. Dwyer and Dr. Debbie Tahmassebi mentored me through the process and we were published last October in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, ironically enough on Mole Day — a holiday for chemists.
Actually seeing the publication with my name on it and knowing that I was the one who wrote it … that was probably the best experience I’ve had here. Afterwards, the whole lab went to PF Chang’s for dinner to celebrate.
I’m probably the biggest nerd in the building. If you need proof, just check out my American Chemical Society (ACS) special-edition Mastercard with the Periodic Table background. I’m also president of the chemistry club, which recently earned multiple ACS awards. I was lucky enough to be one of two students nationally — and the first USD student — to receive the Gladys Anderson Emerson Scholarship from the Iota Sigma Pi National Honor Society for Women in Chemistry. I’ve also been accepted into the Kappa Gamma Pi and Phi Beta Kappa honor societies. The running joke in the department right now is that I’ll be wearing enough cords at graduation to potentially choke myself.
I’m definitely more confident now than I was as a freshman and I’m more certain of what I want to do in the future. I came here thinking I’d maybe get my master’s and go into industry. Now I’m dead-set on continuing with chemistry, getting my PhD at Johns Hopkins, doing a post-doc and then hopefully becoming a professor.
I love doing research but I also really want to teach and both of those things were facilitated through my experience at USD. I’ve really enjoyed it here — especially my close relationship with the faculty and being involved in research early on — and I’d like to be able to help provide the same kind of experience for my own students some day.”
— Shannen Cravens ’11, BS, Chemistry