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Glowing worms, spider webs — all in a day’s work for Island graduate

Emily Hyatt, Shelter Island Class of 2016, is a biochemistry major at one of the best science and engineering colleges in the country, but her love of science started when teacher Dan Williams told her she could do a project on some proteins she had seen online that caught her eye.

The project gave her an idea of what real scientific research is all about when she was still in high school. “He was my enabler,” she said recently. “I just took it and ran.”

Now a senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Emily decided to major in biochemistry and has sharpened her focus on genomics. She’s also working part-time for BGI Americas, part of an international company that provides genome sequencing services, and plans to make a career in the fast-growing area after graduation.

She said she’s been fortunate to find great teachers at RPI, including Donna Crone, Ph.D. “She is my absolute favorite,” said Emily. “She reminds me of a finch, she wakes up really early every day. She’s absolutely the best prof in the bio department.”

Emily has already taken Ms. Crone’s courses in molecular biology and genetic engineering and is about to take the second part of molecular biology, a course known to be extremely tough.

Alongside coursework, Emily has participated in research, including a project last semester that had her working with a type of worm called C. elegans. No ordinary worm, the C. elegans she worked with were engineered with a characteristic that could be considered a benefit only on Halloween, a gene that made them glow green in the dark.

Emily designed and edited the DNA of an E. coli and when the glowing worms ate the E. coli they stopped glowing because her edit interfered with the gene that made them glow.

Her current research project involves figuring out how to engineer E. coli to make spider silk proteins; substances that have applications as medical sutures, coatings, and gels. This metabolic engineering research is the Ph.D project of a graduate student whom she calls “spider man.”

This past summer, Emily had an internship in Boston with BGI Genomics, the largest genetic research center in the world, headquartered in China. The company does genomic sequencing. Emily’s current job with BGI Americas involves contacting scientists at research facilities in North, Central and South America using a National Institute of Health grant list to find people who might need BGI’s services. Although Emily knew that biotechnology and pharmaceuticals were growth areas of industry, she had no idea of the size and competitiveness of the genomics sequencing business.

Emily’s boyfriend went to a large technology-oriented high school in New York City with plenty of college level classes available, and seemingly limitless resources. “By contrast, I went to Shelter Island with 19 kids in a grade.

And yet they did so much. At SIHS, they want kids to see all the things that they can do.”

She and her current roommate have lived together since freshman year, and this year they were joined by her roommate’s boyfriend in a house off campus with a front porch. “It’s cozy,” said Emily. “We’re renting an apartment just like normal people.”

She loves Troy, the small city in upstate New York where RPI is located. “It’s beautiful, and there’s a farmers’ market every weekend.”

She’s still trying to adjust to the sounds of sirens. “I still notice it, especially at night, when I was thinking — ‘Really? Another siren? Can we please stop setting our houses on fire?’”

Learning to love scientific research was just one of the important lessons Emily took away from her experience at the Shelter Island School. In a discipline where strong writers are scarce, and the need to explain complex ideas to a non-scientific public of the utmost importance, Emily is that rare thing in science, a strong writer. “Ms. Colligan taught me how to write, and I try to focus on writing in my humanities courses,” she said.

These days, Emily’s trips to Shelter Island are holiday visits. She has no plans to move back because her work is centered around Boston and the Bay area and Seattle. She’d like to live in a rural area near water, but it has to have a biotech industry so she can continue what she started years ago at a small school where her teachers cared about her, and wanted to give her the world.