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When 21 credits isn’t enough: ArtSci’s unofficial triple major: Recent grad receives Gates Scholarship to study chemistry at Cambridge

Sahil Patel | Student Life
Brooke Husic, a 2013 Washington University graduate, was recently awarded the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship to complete a master’s degree in theoretical chemistry. In the coming academic year, she will study energy landscape theory in regard to its application in protein folding with the Wales Group at the University of Cambridge.

As an undergraduate, Husic completed the coursework for three majors: chemistry, math and German. While her level of achievement might imply a singular focus on academics, Husic found herself involved in a variety of activities that steered her interests. In fact, her list of extracurricular involvements is just as long as her list of her academic achievements. She found time to be a Washington University Student Associate, a resident advisor, a teaching assistant, a writing fellow and a tour guide, as well as a member of Lock & Chain Sophomore Honorary and ThurtenE.

“I did a lot of mentoring things, and those were great opportunities,” she said.

Though she described her four years at Wash. U. as very hectic, she felt she did her best work when pushed to the limit.

“I think I’m one of those people who, the more I’m doing, the better I do it,” Husic said. “I remember taking 15 credits my first semester here, and it just didn’t feel as good as taking 21 credits the next semester.”

But just because she was busy didn’t mean she always had a clear trajectory. When Husic came to Wash. U., she knew she loved math, but unlike so many freshmen before her, she didn’t want to be a doctor. That left her path relatively wide open.

“When I came here, it seemed like you shouldn’t do chemistry unless you were a pre-med, so I didn’t. I tried to be a math major,” she said. “But when I saw everyone complaining about GenChem, I was jealous and I ended up taking it sophomore year.”

Her approach to chemistry was unorthodox, given that she completed the degree in just three years, but Husic found that few of her interests fit into any kind of preordained course of study.

“I think I looked at a lot of things that a lot of people do at Wash. U. and decided I didn’t want to do those things,” Husic said. “I ended up being most influenced by the sort of fringe communities…I didn’t follow a standard sort of Wash. U. path.”

When it came time to choose a major, she first decided on German because she had consistently taken courses and enjoyed them. By the end of her sophomore year, though, she had also confirmed her love of chemistry. And the summer before her junior year, she realized that she could finish a math major as well.

“I realized I had a lot of room in my schedule. I thought to myself, ‘I could totally finish a math major.’ It made sense, though, because I was realizing the chemistry I was interested in was very mathematical,” she said.

Even with an undergraduate course of study chosen, Husic had no idea what she wanted to do after graduation. Guided by a love for chemistry and math, she considered careers in everything from academia to consulting.

“I bounced around for a long time,” she said. “I took classes in a bunch of things and in the end it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve found my passion. It has revealed itself to me.’ Instead, it was, ‘I still don’t know, but I’m going to pick what I like best and go with it,’” she said. “I like chemistry the best of anything I’ve done yet, so let’s do it.”

Husic wasn’t necessarily daunted, though, by the variety of options. She tried not to let things out of her control bother her too much.

“I hoped college would help me figure out [what I wanted to do], but I got to a point in my senior year and still didn’t know…At this point a year ago, I had no idea what I was doing,” Husic said. “I think a lot of people freak out because the people who do know what they’re doing are the loud ones.”

Without a strict industry path for chemistry, Husic set about exploring various graduate programs. After meeting with Associate Dean Joy Kiefer, director of undergraduate research, the two collaborated and Husic began pursuing various programs at Cambridge.

“I didn’t really have anyone to set a precedent for me, so it was really helpful to have people here,” Husic said. “I think it’s important to talk to everyone here.”

“It’s a missed opportunity if you don’t talk to professors or other people in your department,” she added.

In fact, it was through a chance encounter with professor in the Department of Chemistry, one whose classes she never took, that she first heard about the Gates Cambridge program, a relatively new fellowship opportunity.

And it was through the combined guidance of Kiefer and the professor in whose lab she now works, Jay Ponder, that Husic navigated the process of applying to fellowships and Ph.D. programs.

“My mentor, [Ponder], was instrumental in helping me apply to grad school. There was no one else I could ask; I didn’t have a sibling or a parent who did it before me,” Husic said.

On Feb. 12, Husic discovered that she had been selected for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She will now defer whichever Ph.D. program she selects to the 2015-16 academic year and focus on her master’s.

“In terms of my career, I hope I get enough research and direction in my time at Cambridge to be able to really jump into my Ph.D.,” she said. “I don’t want them to be additive, like master’s then Ph.D., but to kind of have them merge.”

But just as she was involved outside the classroom at Wash. U., during her time at Cambridge, she hopes to explore a variety of opportunities. She plans to reconnect with friends she made during her time in Germany attending a German language department summer program, see the sights and also adjust to living on her own.

“I try to run my life so I don’t waste any time. I want every block of my day to benefit me. It could be just social or sleeping,” she said, “but I want to be able to say that everything is benefitting me in some way.”

In terms of her professional interests, though, the pieces have finally fallen into place. Husic has realized what she loves and how to pursue it. In fact, during the winter months, she felt she finally had a moment that validated she was on the right path.

“I had a moment where I realized I had been working on the same problem for the eight months and I wasn’t bored…I actually liked it and still cared about it.”

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  • Anonymous says:

    this girl is one of the most intelligent, admirable people i’ve ever had the fortune to meet. so many congratulations on your achievements!

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878