North Central College - Naperville, IL

Alumni talk with science students about their careers, experiences

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2005 alumni Naomi Roots and Zach Pratt, Ph.D.
2005 alumni Naomi Roots and Zach Pratt, Ph.D.

A new tradition—inviting alumni back to campus to talk informally with students—was incorporated as part of programming for Honors Day and the Rall Symposium for Undergraduate Research this year.

“Our alumni are an untapped resource for our students and I’m excited about inviting them back to share their experiences with our science students,” said Professor of Biology and Roger and Nadeane Hruby Professor in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Stephen Johnston as he welcomed two North Central College alumni from the class of 2005.

Johnston introduced Naomi Roots, who majored in biology and Spanish at North Central, and Zachary Pratt, Ph.D., a biochemistry major, to a room full of students who are budding scientists, professors, physicians and researchers.

After Roots graduated, she joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to Nicaragua. She returned to Chicago as a volunteer at Shedd Aquarium, where she was offered an internship then a full-time position as a trainer and is now an animal care specialist. Pratt earned a Ph.D. with research in cancer biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a post-doctoral fellow at the University working on bacterial research.

Pratt told students that his career roadmap evolved over the years. “I came to North Central wanting to be an archeologist, then an M.D., then a forensic scientist like the ‘CSI’ shows. I did discover I wanted to help people in some way and eventually teach at a small college. Studying viruses like I did at UW wouldn’t get me there, so I pursued the world of bacterial science and food-borne pathogens like Salmonella.”   

Aye-Myat-Myat Thinn ’13, a biochemistry major, said she appreciated Pratt’s frankness. “I could really relate to him being confused what area to go into. I’m not certain what I want to do yet, but it was good to hear he had those questions and eventually discovered his interest.”

During her talk, Roots told students what they’re learning now will be used in whatever they end up doing in the future. “As a science student, you observe, collect data, track information and present your findings in some form. These skills you’re learning are skills I’m using in my work with animals today,” she said.

In recalling her first project as an intern at Shedd, Roots was asked to observe the activities of a monkey and report her findings to the trainers. “I was given no other instruction, but because I had done lots of research at North Central I knew I had to find a way to document and present my findings. So, I found a way to numerically describe what I was seeing so I could present what I saw. Skills!”

Biology major and pre-med student Alex Cairo ’15 said, “Hearing them talk I learned there are so many different fields you can go into. And I liked Zach’s comments about the salmonella plates and what he discovered from his tests on different strains on bacteria. Very surprising results!”

Roots and Pratt both noted that getting along with others is key to on-the-job success. “Collaborate, don’t compete,” said Pratt. “Your work is more fun when you’re a team and support each other, and teamwork is critically important in research.”

Roots told students, “At North Central you’re given lots of opportunities to work as a team. Take advantage of those collaborative opportunities. Whatever area of science you pursue you need to work in a non-competitive way. Your experiences here will prepare you for that.”