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Isaac Alty '16 to receive Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy

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     Isaac Alty '16 always wanted to be a scientist. He came to William & Mary to pursue a pre-med path and ended up majoring in chemistry and ancient Greek. He is interviewing at medical schools, and has already been accepted at two.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Isaac Alty’s mother is a biochemist and his father is a general surgeon, and the enthusiasm they brought to their professions had a formative effect on their son.

“You can only imagine how crazy our dinner-table conversations were, between gall bladders and protein folding,” he said.

Alty ’16 followed the footsteps of both parents during his time at William & Mary, pursuing a chemistry major along a pre-med path. He also has a second major, in ancient Greek.

Alty is the co-recipient of William & Mary’s Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy for 2016, along with Andrew Halleran. 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, Prof. 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.

It is especially apt for Alty to be awarded the Jefferson Prize, as his choice of majors — layered atop William & Mary’s liberal arts-based curriculum — has given him the most Jeffersonian undergraduate experience imaginable. Alty says he didn’t start out to walk in Jefferson’s footsteps, but the comparison isn’t lost on him.

“It has occurred to me a couple of times. Jefferson was very much a Renaissance man. He did a little bit of everything and he did it pretty well, too,” Alty explained. “I enjoy the idea of not focusing my education in one specific place, being able to learn about a broad variety of things that tie back to each other, and not necessarily in ways that you would expect, but which are beautiful nonetheless.

“Not to mention that there is really no better place to have a Jeffersonian undergraduate experience than at Jefferson’s own alma mater,” he added.

Like Jefferson, Alty did pretty well at William & Mary. Associate Professor of Chemistry Randolph A. Coleman is Alty’s academic advisor as well as health professions advisor for the department. In a letter of support for Alty’s nomination for the Jefferson Prize, Coleman pointed out Alty’s grades placed him in the top one percent of his class.

“This outstanding record has been achieved while pursuing a challenging program of premedical studies along with his chemistry and Ancient Greek double major,” Coleman wrote.

Lisa Landino, the Garrett-Robb-Guy Professor of Chemistry, said that Alty scored a hundred percent in her advanced biochemistry class without attending a single class. Alty explained that he had a Greek class scheduled in the same time slot as the biochem class, so he devised his own distance-learning protocol.

“I videotaped my biochemistry lecture to watch later in the day,” he said. He even managed to maintain a presence in class. Landino would often introduce a term, explaining to the class its Greek or Latin derivation. After each bit of Greek- or Latin-based nomenclature was explained, Landino would peer at the videocamera and say, “But Isaac already knows that.”

 Beyond terminology and a propensity for scientists to use Greek letters, Alty acknowledges that his two majors don’t have a great deal of content overlap. The chemistry major was his chosen path to fulfill pre-med requirements. Alty enjoyed his four years of high school Latin and his Latin teacher advised him to try ancient Greek in college.

Alty enrolled in Greek 101 in his first semester at William & Mary, learning enough, he said, to read a little bit of Homer, and liking it enough to sign up for the next Greek course.

“One thing led to another,” Alty said. “Before I knew it, I had two years of Greek under my belt. I thought, you know, this is a lot of fun. I should just make a major out of it.”

He did, and he excelled in both majors. He had one semester without a Greek class, “and I felt that there was something missing in my life,” he said. “I realized that what was missing was the three or four hours I would spend on translation.” He gathered fans in the Department of Chemistry as well as the Department of Classical Studies.

“Isaac is affable, earnest, and positive. He approaches everything with an enthusiasm and openness that I find particularly refreshing and contagious,” wrote Vassiliki Panoussi, associate professor in the classical studies department. “Difficulty just doesn’t seem to faze Isaac: Very few students have taken four semesters of advanced Greek — arguably the toughest courses at William & Mary — while also achieving excellence in a field as demanding as chemistry!” 

The academic demands of two majors did not prevent Alty from making time to engage in research. He worked in the laboratory of Chemistry Chair Christopher Abelt for two years, including working full time over the past two summers. Abelt wrote in letter supporting Alty’s nomination for the Jefferson Prize that Alty is operating at the level of a fourth-year Ph.D. chemistry student.

“Isaac has been an absolute pleasure to have in lab. He came up to speed in research extremely quickly,” Abelt wrote. “He is one of only a handful of students I have had who has moved a project forward by digging deep into the chemical literature to solve synthesis problems. He was able to accomplish in lab in two months last summer what would take most other good students at least one year. ”

Abelt said that Alty achieved a number of successes in the lab, including the formulation of a synthetic route to a molecule that was highly congested, and therefore a challenge to make. After figuring out the route, Alty went on to carry out the actual synthesis of the molecule, Abelt said.

Alty has applied to a number of medical schools and has already been accepted at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University and has interviewed at Harvard and Washington University in St. Louis. He said that he always wanted to pursue some sort of a career in science.

“I really started getting geared up for science in middle school. I got interested in the space race,” Alty said. “I watched October Sky.  That movie inspired me: Some kid from Coalwood, West Virginia, could become a NASA engineer. I wanted to be an astronaut until I decided to be a doctor in the 10th grade.”

He got a look at the surgeon’s craft when he accompanied his father on a number of medical missions to Africa. Alty scrubbed up and assisted in operations, “but I didn’t cut anything, unless you count sutures.”

Alty said that although he is leaning towards surgery, he hasn’t fully decided on a medical specialty: “I’ll let medical school decide that for me.”