Biochemistry major Claire Evensen was one of just three University of Wisconsin–Madison undergraduates to receive a prestigious 2019 Barry Goldwater Scholarship for undergraduate excellence in the sciences.
She is among 496 Goldwater Scholars named this year out of 1,223 college sophomores and juniors nominated from across the country. Evensen is from Verona, Wisc. and also majoring in applied mathematics. In the Department of Biochemistry, she works in the laboratory of Professor Thomas Record.
The Goldwater Scholarship covers one year of tuition, fees, books, and room and board for juniors, up to a maximum of $7,500. Winners who are sophomores are eligible for two years of paid expenses, up to a maximum of $7,500 per year.
Biochemistry majors at UW–Madison have a strong history of receiving the Goldwater. Since 2010, at least one biochemistry undergraduate has received a Goldwater every year except for two. The 2018 recipient was Nathan Wang.
“I always wanted to come to UW–Madison because I’ve always loved the city and I knew it had a huge emphasis on undergraduate research, which is really important to me,” Evensen says. “Competing in Science Olympiad from sixth to 12th grade sparked my interested in studying biochemistry and doing research early on.”
Evensen’s passion for scientific research began with Science Olympiad, as well as an interest in the genetics of disease, which led her to discover Google Scholar in just middle school. Even then her inquisitive mind was asking questions about disease and how drugs work.
As she learned more about different fields of science, she was drawn to biochemistry, she says, particularly at UW–Madison because of the broad and diverse research taking place in the Department of Biochemistry.
“I like how broad the field can be,” she says. “You can walk around the buildings here and see students’ posters that focus on so many different areas and applications of biochemistry. There are so many potential paths, which is exciting.”
She’s been in the Record Lab since the spring semester of her freshman year, a rare feat. She actually knew of Record’s lab from her mother, who took a course with him during her own time as an undergraduate at UW–Madison. In the lab she studies transcription, the process by which RNA is made from DNA. Among other functions, this RNA is what is ultimately translated into the proteins essential for life. In particular she’s focused on transcription initiation in bacteria. Because transcription takes place in every living cell on Earth, the research is broadly applicable, she says.
This past spring she played a key role as second author on a paper published in the journal Biochemistry that detailed the kinetics of transcription initiation. By taking very precise measurements they were able to piece together a model of the rates of each step of initiation, gleaming some insights into the process along the way. It’s work like this that determines the benchmark for these processes, which in turn serves as a jumping off point for other research into what happens if the DNA sequence or other parameters are changed.
“In the two and a half years that she has been a member of my laboratory, Claire has demonstrated excellence in research, to complement the excellence she shows in the classroom, and in science-based endeavors beyond the classroom and the laboratory,” Record says of Evensen. “Claire is exceptional, ranking with the very best undergraduates I have had the pleasure of mentoring in the last four decades. She is committed to a career in academic research and demonstrates great promise of becoming one of the nation’s research leaders.”
Record adds that Evensen’s work in the laboratory combines not only high-level knowledge of the research program but exquisite attention to detail as solutions are mixed and delicate experiments performed. Kate Henderson, a postdoctoral scholar in the Record Lab, has mentored Evensen and echoes Record’s praise.
“Claire is always excited to learn new things and eagerly volunteers when there is a new set of experiments to try,” Henderson says. “She is invaluable to our team, and it’s hard to believe she is only a senior and not a graduate student.”
Evensen has gotten such a grasp on the research taking place in the Record Lab that she is now mentoring two other undergraduates in the lab. She won’t be in the Record laboratory this summer though. With the help of an award from the Department of Biochemistry, she’ll be traveling to England to study at Oxford University through the SCORE program run by biochemistry professor Marv Wickens.
Entering her senior year with plans to graduate in May 2020, Evensen’s ultimate goal is to attend graduate school in mathematical biochemistry or a similar area and become a professor performing research. Her summer at Oxford will allow her to explore even more quantitative work to determine what she’d like to focus on in graduate school. She says her studies in biochemistry and math, along with her experience in Record’s lab, have shaped the impact she believes she can have.
“It’s incredible that all the patterns we find in biochemistry can be explained by mathematics and they are all just waiting for us to discover them,” Evensen says. “This is how we can try to explain how the universe works. I love the opportunity to combine the two and put what I learn into my research in the laboratory.”