North Central College - Naperville, IL

Building on Momentum: Science

In the fast-paced world of researching and developing new pharmaceuticals, drug companies often don’t have the time to commit resources to creating new models and technologies. That’s where the research of an academic laboratory, like that of Heather Carlson ’91 at the University of Michigan, can play an important role in developing new therapeutic drugs.

Carlson will talk about her career and work when she visits North Central College as keynote speaker for the 15th annual Rall Symposium for Undergraduate Research on Tuesday, May 15, beginning at 8:30 a.m. in the Wentz Concert Hall.

“We specialize in method development because, as an academic, I can’t compete with developing new drugs for the market,” Carlson explains. “We develop technologies and databases that other people can apply.” At a molecular level, her research involves studying protein binding sites, which bind molecules that can be inhibitors or regulators and affect cell function. These studies have implications for developing treatments for cancer and other diseases. Carlson’s research involves extensive computer analysis of large numbers of proteins to investigate consistent patterns.

“My lab is actually an office with computers,” she explains, adding that she is typically supervising about 10 people total, including six doctoral candidates.

Carlson recently was promoted to professor of medicinal chemistry and professor of chemistry at Michigan, holding appointments in both the College of Pharmacy and College of Literature, Science and the Arts. She also was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for her contributions to computational chemistry. She arrived at Michigan in 2000 as the John Gideon Searle Assistant Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, an endowed chair awarded with her appointment. “It’s rare to receive a chair as an assistant professor and I was very honored to get the offer,” she says.

North Central’s Impact

Carlson came to North Central with a love of studying math and was curious about theoretical physical chemistry. “My advisor, Shirley Wilson (professor of mathematics emerita), remembers me coming to North Central also excited about quantum mechanics.”

With the mentoring of Wilson along with Anne Sherren, professor of chemistry emerita, and David Horner, Harold and Eva White Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts, Carlson triple-majored in math, chemistry and physics. “Heather was one of the rare North Central chemistry majors who had a strong interest in both math and chemistry,” remembers Horner.

Horner had spent time researching at the University of Georgia’s Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry and encouraged Carlson to obtain a summer internship there. “Dr. Horner was a huge influence for me at North Central,” Carlson says. “And Anne Sherren supervised my research project at Argonne National Laboratory about analytical chemistry and liquid chromatography.”

After graduating as the Outstanding Major in Chemistry, Carlson’s choice for graduate programs came down to Stanford University, the University of Georgia and Yale University. She chose the latter because “Yale already had a program in biophysics and in the individual meetings we had, I could tell they cared about me.” She completed
her doctorate in physical chemistry in 1997 and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California at San Diego from 1997 to 2000.

Now in a senior faculty role and as mother of three young sons, Carlson is concerned with statistics that show a troubling attrition rate among females in higher education. “Women represent 50 percent of incoming graduate students but only 20 percent of faculty nationally,” she says.

Seeking Top Grads

She has also been involved with recruiting graduate students for Michigan. “We compete with (the Universities of) Illinois and Wisconsin for the top kids,” she says. Of the top candidates that the university recruits for graduate programs, the majority come from small liberal arts schools like North Central College and others in the Midwest. Science students at larger, tier-one universities are usually more interested in pre-medicine and other health fields, she says.

“The students who are succeeding at small four-year colleges are prepared and motivated to pursue doctoral degrees and research careers.”  

North Central NOW Winter 2012