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School of Arts and Sciences

High Flyer

Friday, December 5, 2014

Tufts Senior Summer Morrill Receives Astronaut Scholarship Award

Dr. Kathryn Thornton anf\d Summer Morrill, A15

by Rachel Clarke, A15

Former NASA astronaut Dr. Kathryn Thornton presents Summer Morrill, A15, with the Astronaut Scholarship award check in Alumnae Lounge on Oct. 17, 2014. (Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)

Summer Morrill , A15, speaks after receiving the Astronaut Scholarship. (Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)

Summer Morrill, A15, celebrates her award with friends and family. (Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)

Dr. Kathryn Thornton speaks about her experiences as a former NASA astronaut at the Astronaut Scholarship presentation. (Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)

Summer Morrill, a senior biology major at Tufts University, was recently awarded a $10,000 scholarship from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, an organization founded by the Mercury 7 astronauts that rewards college students who excel in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Former astronaut Dr. Kathryn Thornton, who spent over 275 hours in space over the course of her career and was the second woman to walk in space, presented the scholarship award to Summer during a brief ceremony in Alumnae Lounge on October 17. Thornton discussed her experiences as an astronaut and shared her concerns regarding America's declining competitiveness in STEM fields. She praised Summer for her impressive research and scientific accomplishments.

The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation presents awards to college students who display a dedication to a variety of scientific fields and show promise as future scientists, researchers, engineers, or mathematicians. "We often talk about having to prepare kids for the 21st. century," Thornton acknowledged during her speech. "That's impossible. We don't know what the 21st century is going to bring. Our job as educators is to prepare young people to invent the 21st century, and that's the journey that Summer is embarking on now."

Since her sophomore year, Summer has conducted research at Tufts with Assistant Professor of Chemical Biology and Molecular Biology Stephen Fuchs. Summer works as part of a collaborative lab effort that seeks to characterize large repetitive protein regions, focusing on the selective pressures that cause protein regions to expand and contract at the DNA level. The research is critical to further understanding DNA evolution and disease, as DNA instability of repetitive regions is implicated in many diseases and could be a factor in evolution of protein length over time.

Summer says that her mother's struggle with breast cancer initially prompted her curiosity in the biological origins of disease, specifically about what must go wrong at the genetic level in order for diseases like cancer to develop and spread throughout a person's body. Summer also serves on the executive board of Tufts' Relay for Life program, an annual event that raises money for cancer research, treatment, and support programs in coordination with the American Cancer Society.

Professor Fuchs calls Summer a "key member of the lab." From the beginning, Summer took on leadership roles and worked alongside graduate students, later contributing her own intellectual perspective and taking initiative on individualized projects, says Fuchs. "She's just inherently good at it," he adds, noting that Summer is exactly the type of motivated student that the Astronaut Science Foundation seeks out. "These scholarships try to identify people that have the potential to do good things and motivate them to pursue careers in science," Dr. Fuchs emphasizes. "Summer has great potential."

In addition to her research, Summer contributes to helping others learn about and develop an interest in science. This year, she had her first real glimpse of teaching by leading study groups for introductory level biology classes. "Being able to be the person that gets people excited about science is really fun," she says. As an extension of her research in the Fuchs Lab, Summer also speaks to students at Northern Essex Community College, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, about her research and work as a mentor and consultant to other students interested in pursuing scientific research.

In addition to providing scholarship funds, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation hosts conferences for award recipients, enabling scholars like Summer to share their work with other motivated young individuals and connect with an active scientific community.

As many people in the scientific community at Tufts have noted, Summer is likely to do great things in the future. "I am looking forward to seeing where her career leads," Dr. Thornton said Friday afternoon, "I think it will be amazing."