Hertz Fellow 2014 Judith Savitskaya Spotlight on her Journey to the Hertz Fellowship

January 8, 2015

From an Interview on NorthJersey.com: News: Education
Community News, (Fair Lawn Edition)
Fair Lawn – A former Fair Lawn resident has earned a hard-to-get fellowship.

Judith Savitskaya recently received the highly coveted Hertz Fellowship. The Hertz Fellowship allows young men and women to complete their PhDs in the applied physical, biological and engineering sciences.

From 800 applicants each year, only 15 are selected.

"I never expected to succeed in this intense competition," she said. "I'm most excited about meeting the other fellows and past winners at the various retreats and conferences hosted by the foundation. Reading their biographies on the foundation's website has been inspiring and humbling. I'm looking forward to learning more about the people that make up the incredible Hertz community."

The 15 Hertz Fellows prevailed through a rigorous vetting process. They are ultimately chosen for their creativity and willingness to take risks. They have complete financial independence to pursue their scientific work without the constraints of traditional research funding.

Savitskaya is interested in developing a quantitative understanding of how biological systems perform computation, with the goal of engineering novel functions. During her undergraduate studies at Carnegie Mellon, she used simulations to investigate how communication between neurons leads to population-wide information processing. As a Churchill Scholar at Cambridge, she shifted from neurons to microbes and built experimental and computational tools for engineering patterning in bacterial populations. For her doctoral research at UC Berkeley, she plans to continue engineering microbes to do useful work. A 2014 Mayfield Fellow in entrepreneurship, she has a strong desire to translate her research into technologies that can benefit society. Her ultimate goal is to build biological and bioinformatics tools to address challenges in agriculture, energy, and the environment.

Savitskaya explained that the application essays required applicants to develop a mature, broad-sighted perspective on the past, current and future of their field.

"My field, synthetic biology, is at the intersection of several disciplines. It's not quite a science and not quite an engineering discipline. In fact, it is difficult to find two scientists who define the field the same way, let alone agreeing on what its goals should be. As a result, preparing these essays was challenging, but also provided me with a structured opportunity to form my own ideas about the goals of my field," she said.

She said the interview process was a difficult and unique aspect of the vetting process. The questions are asked by past fellows and include technical questions and riddles that test an applicant’s knowledge.

"Though I was nervous about the first interview, after the first few minutes of profuse sweating and speed-talking, I actually found myself enjoying the challenging problems and my conversations with the interviewers," she recalled. "Above all, the experience of applying and interviewing for the fellowship revealed to me the value of my Carnegie Mellon training. The major lesson I learned through computer sciences courses at CMU was that there's no reason to be nervous when you don't know the answer right away, because then you get to enjoy the journey of thinking through different paths to a solution. Earning the result to a hard problem is far more satisfying than just finding the result to an easy one."

Savitskaya said her interest in science was sparked by a subscription to Zoobooks as a child.

"I thought animals were incredibly fascinating. Then, in middle school, I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. McCubbin's frog-dissection lessons and the physics labs in Mrs. Goldstein's class. I ultimately chose to apply to Bergen County Academies, for the Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology. There, I met Dr. Robert Pergolizzi who enchanted me with stories of alternative splicing and RNA interference (RNAi) and other fascinating biological phenomena. He and I began to establish a lab at BCA for high school research and worked on an RNAi project together. After my first result, I was absolutely hooked on research," she said.

While she now lives in California, Savitskaya remembers growing up in Fair Lawn.

"My fondest memories of Fair Lawn are all set in one place: the corner booth at the Land and Sea diner. My friends and I spent many a night debating philosophy over a pile of mozzarella and gravy covered fries," she added.

by staff writer by TONYA HOLMAN