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Grace Solini '20 to receive Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy

  • Grace Solini
    Jefferson Prize:  Grace Solini '20 will graduate from William & Mary this spring with not one, but two peer-reviewed papers to her credit. She is first author on one; co-first author on the second. And there is a third paper in an advanced stage.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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It’s an accomplishment to graduate from a STEM program with a co-authorship of a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. It’s an even greater accomplishment to be the first author on the paper.

Grace Solini will graduate from William & Mary this spring with not one, but two peer-reviewed papers to her credit. She is first author on one; co-first author on the second. And there is a third paper in an advanced stage.

Solini, a member of William & Mary’s Class of 2020, will receive the Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. The honor will be bestowed during a ceremony at 4 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business along with the university's other Jefferson awards and Monroe Prize. The 2020 Plumeri Award recipients will also be announced at that event. The Jefferson Prize is endowed by the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation to recognize the year’s highest achieving undergraduate student in the sciences and mathematics.

The Jefferson Prize also commemorates Jefferson’s relationship with Professor William Small. Solini is a particularly apt recipient, as Small was Jefferson’s science and mathematics tutor at William & Mary and Solini majors in Computational and Applied Mathematics and Statistics (CAMS).

Chancellor Professor of Biology Margaret Saha, Solini’s research advisor, notes that “Grace is extraordinary in every way. She is intensely multidisciplinary, a great lab citizen, and intellectually fearless. Over the past three years she has taken the lab into new directions with her innovative computational and analytical skills.”

Solini enters her final semester with an impressive list of academic accomplishments and lab credentials that many Ph.D. students would envy. She is a first author on two peer-reviewed journal papers with a third publication in the works – all from her work at William & Mary in Saha’s lab. But she didn’t come to W&M set on pursuing a research career.

“I was always interested in mathematics,” she said. “That’s what I was best at in grade school and high school. I always knew that I would pursue some type of mathematics. However once I took Dr. Saha’s Freshmen Honors Biology lab, I realized I truly enjoyed wet lab research and that I could apply mathematics to important biological problems.”

Saha describes her Introductory Biology Honors Lab as a research-based course in which students pursue a range of projects that don’t have preset answers. Rather, it’s a lab that requires students to read original literature, develop hypotheses and pursue interdisciplinary types of experiments.

During this lab Solini and her fellow freshmen found themselves immersed in what she describes as a “synthetic biology/phage fusion-type project” and Solini found that she had been bitten by what might be called the research bug.

“It was just amazing,” she said. “I didn’t think I would love research as much as I really did. I’d done science fairs in high school, but this was nothing like that.”

The lab members read published literature and pursued their own ideas, with minimal guidance. “There was no instructions list,” Solini said. “I had to think for myself. And it was just such a creative process. The research process was so amazing and exciting.”

The honors lab experience prompted her to join Saha’s research laboratory. It was there that “I truly confirmed for myself that these two things, mathematics and molecular genetics research — are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are necessarily complementary. Modern biology is computational in nature.”

Because of her excellent work in the lab, in the summer following her freshman year, Saha invited Solini to write a review paper on transplantation experiments in developmental biology. Saha notes that previous students had been working on the project for some time.

“But the topic and literature were inordinately complex and it did not come together,” Saha wrote. “In the end, Grace rescued this project and put everything together with a first authorship! It speaks to her ability to analyze, synthesize and think deeply about a topic.”

The paper was published when Solini was a sophomore. It was a remarkable accomplishment for such an early-career researcher, but she didn’t realize it at the time.

“It wasn’t until later, when people when people asked me about it,” Solini said. “I hadn’t realized that this was something out of the ordinary.”

Over the next two years Solini has gone on to explore in far more depth the fertile area where wet-lab work meets the computational. She continued research throughout her entire undergraduate career, becoming a co-first author on a recently published Developmental Biology paper, “Xenopus embryos show a compensatory response following perturbation of the Notch signaling pathway.” (As an aside, Solini confessed that she and a friend dressed up as the Notch signaling pathway for Halloween.)

She made impressions beyond the Saha lab, as well. She has maintained an overall 3.97 average and a perfect GPA in the demanding CAMS major classes. She was a recipient of the Beckman Scholarship as well as the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship.

In a letter supporting Solini’s candidacy for the award, Leah Shaw, an associate professor in William & Mary’s Department of Mathematics, pointed out Solini’s performance in her Random Walks in Biology class. Shaw wrote that Solini earned the highest grade among the 17 students enrolled in the course, and among the highest in the seven years that Shaw had been teaching Random Walks.

“I should also note that Grace’s class project topic was unrelated to her undergraduate research or any biological system we had directly covered in our class. She had read a recent paper about plankton behavior and wanted to use techniques from our class to model this new system,” Shaw wrote, adding that Solini’s final project earned a perfect score. “By choosing this topic, she displayed scientific curiosity, a willingness to learn new areas, and a desire to synthesize information across all her classes. “

Drew LaMar, an associate professor and co-director in the CAMS program, notes in a letter supporting Solini’s nomination for the Jefferson Prize that “she has consistently shown an eagerness to tackle extremely difficult and interesting problems, all with a sense of integrity and leadership.”

Solini is currently completing her Honors research in Saha’s lab on a project that analyzes terabytes of a very complex RNA-Seq dataset in an effort to determine how embryos recover from various genetic perturbations – a project that has implications for regenerative medicine.

RNA-Seq is a technique that allows the scientist to examine every gene that is expressed as RNA in a given tissue, a technique that requires state-of-the-art computational skills. Saha notes that Solini operates at the level of an advanced graduate student, immersing herself in the literature and pushing the boundaries of every project in a creative, innovative and productive manner.

“It has been such a pleasure and honor to work with Grace over the past three years. I will miss her so much. However, this extraordinary student will no doubt go on to a stellar career, and I look forward to reading about the many contributions she will make in the field of systems biology,” Saha said.

Solini enters her final semester as a William & Mary graduate intending to enter a competitive doctoral program, likely in systems biology. She has already received interview offers from Cal Tech, Princeton, Stanford and a host of other elite programs.

“There’s a lot of room for exploring different fields,” Solini said. “There is wet-lab work. There is quantitative work. Developmental biology. Stem cell biology. Molecular biology and protein biochemistry. All those fields can be explored from a systems biology perspective – one which will, of course, depend heavily on mathematics and computational analysis.”