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Andrew Halleran '16 to receive Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy

  • Andrew Halleran '16
    Andrew Halleran '16  A double major in biology and the newly formed computational and applied mathematics and statistics major, Halleran was the spark plug behind the formation of William & Mary's iGEM project and the co-leader of the team that won the 2015 Grand Prize in the international synthetic biology competition.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Andrew Halleran ’16 spends a lot of time working in a lab. Exactly how much, he said, depends on the week.

He may tally up 30 hours in a normal week, when he’s going to classes, and hit highs of 60 or 70 during the summer. All this work goes on while Halleran is completing courses for majors in biology and in the mathematical biology track of the newly formed computational and applied mathematics and statistics major.

“When I was young, I always was very curious,” he said. “And I really liked being right about things.”

That native curiosity combined with the youthful desire to be right blended to create a drive for knowledge that led ultimately to Halleran being awarded William & Mary’s Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. Endowed by the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the award recognizes excellence in the sciences and mathematics and commemorates Jefferson’s relationship with Professor William Small. The namesake of the William Small Physical Laboratory, Small was Jefferson’s science and mathematics tutor at William & Mary.

The Jefferson Prize is one of the awards traditionally bestowed at Charter Day, which commemorates the founding of the institution in 1693. Halleran is the co-recipient of the 2016 Jefferson Prize, sharing the award with Isaac Alty, a chemistry and ancient Greek major. The 2016 Charter Day Ceremony will take place on Friday, Feb. 5, in William & Mary Hall.

Halleran said he came to William & Mary with the idea of working toward an M.D./Ph.D.  He set a brisk pace for himself in his first year at William & Mary, joining the all-year phage project, an alternative freshman lab experience sponsored by the Science Education Alliance of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Margaret Saha, Chancellor Professor of Biology, mentored the phage lab. She said that Halleran stood out early, completing extra work to make sure his phage, named “Kampy,” was ready for sequencing and to prepare for a chance to give a talk at HHMI’s Janelia Farm.

“Andy’s abstract was indeed selected for an oral presentation at Janelia Farm, and he did an excellent job,” Saha wrote in her letter of recommendation. “In front of a large audience filled with experts on phage biology, Andy was able to explain his project professionally in a most impressive manner and to answer all of the questions following the talk.”

His first year set the tone for the rest of his undergraduate time at William & Mary. He was one of the spark plugs in the formation of William & Mary’s first iGEM team. The iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) Foundation holds an annual competition for the best synthetic biology project to be assembled from a common kit of “biological LEGOs.”

William & Mary’s first undergraduate iGEM team won a bronze medal. The next year’s team, led by Halleran and Caroline Golino ’17, took the top prize, besting an international field of 259 teams.

Halleran garnered virtually every honor or distinction available. In addition to his HHMI involvement, he was named a Beckman Scholar as well as a Goldwater Scholar. It’s not uncommon for a William & Mary student majoring in the natural or computational sciences to be a co-author on a peer-reviewed paper. A particularly advanced undergraduate might publish a journal article as a first author or co-author. Halleran has already published two co-first author papers and has several more in the pipeline.

The demands of his classes and lab commitments, coupled with his native spirit of inquiry, prompted Halleran to perform an experiment on himself.

“My sophomore year, I was starting to spend more time in the lab,” Halleran said. “I had this thought that I should be optimally efficient and if I could get less hours of sleep and still be fine, then why not? So, like a good scientist, I decided to experiment on myself.”

He started with the standard eight hours, then tried seven hours for a week, then six, etc. He even tried setting his iPhone on his pillow, running an app that was supposed to track REM sleep, but it didn’t work as advertised.

At five hours of sleep, he said he didn’t feel 100 percent, but was still able to go to all his classes and meet all his commitments. The four-hour segment of the experiment only lasted two days.

“I figured that from now on, I’m going to sleep just as long as I sleep,” he said.

A reading of the faculty letters supporting Halleran’s nomination for the Jefferson Prize reveals superlatives popping off the pages like fluorescent markers in a cell.

 “I now regard him, without exaggeration or hyperbole, as the best student I have encountered in my forty-three years at the College,” wrote Eric Bradley, professor of biology and chair of the department.

“He is fearless scientifically and is willing to take risks. He never goes for the ‘safe’ project or path. He is an avid reader of scientific literature and has an unbelievable command of the concepts and cutting edge techniques. He has excellent suggestions on virtually every lab project and operates much more like a senior graduate student,” wrote Saha. “In fact, at the Society for Neuroscience meeting this past fall everyone thought he was an advanced doctoral student.”

Mark Forsyth, associate professor of biology, wrote, “He has an uncanny knack to apply seemingly disparate knowledge to the task at hand. And he will work circles around virtually anyone!”

Halleran began his time at William & Mary before classes even began, with an email asking Beverly Sher, the biology department’s advisor for health careers, about preparation for M.D./Ph.D. programs. He enrolled in several courses taught by Sher, starting with her freshman seminar on infectious diseases and including five semesters of an individual guided readings course.

“I started teaching at the College in the spring of 1992, and before that, I was a teaching assistant for five years in the immunology course at Caltech,” Sher wrote in her nomination-support letter. “Andy is by far the best student I have ever taught in my life: watching him learn is like watching Secretariat run.”