Jim Valcourt Wins Hertz Fellowship

April 4, 2012
Hertz Staff

Pyne Prize winner Jim Valcourt ’12 now has another laurel to add to his collection. Valcourt, a molecular biology major from Sterling, Mass., who is also pursuing a certificate in quantitative and computational biology, was awarded the Hertz Fellowship on March 22 to support graduate study in the physical, biological or engineering sciences.

One of the most prestigious fellowships in the applied sciences, the Hertz Fellowship awards $250,000 grants every year to 15 students working toward a Ph.D. degree in the applied sciences. This year saw an applicant pool of over 600 students. After submitting an application for the fellowship, 150 applicants are selected for a first round of interviews. These applicants are further narrowed to 50 candidates for the second round, after which 15 are selected for the prize. Matthew Edwards ’12, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major, was among the 50 finalists.

Valcourt cited Nobel laureate and molecular biology professor Eric Wieschaus as the person who introduced him to research at Princeton. “I sent him an email even before I came to Princeton asking him if I could work in his lab, and he said I could,” Valcourt said.

Valcourt also said that Hilary Coller, his thesis adviser, and David Botstein, one of the professors who spearheads the Integrated Science curriculum, have been immensely important in guiding him through his undergraduate years. Professor Coller said that Valcourt is “an extraordinary student, a valued colleague and a dedicated scientist” who is “particularly unique in his ability to perform both experimental and computational molecular biology.”

Valcourt has conducted research for the past three summers, spending two of them at Princeton. He took the rigorous Integrated Science curriculum his first two years at the University and cited the program as “phenomenal preparation” for a future in scientific research.

Valcourt said he plans to take two years off before graduate school to work at a private research lab, D.E. Shaw Research in New York. According to its website, the lab conducts “basic scientific research in the field of computational biochemistry.”

Speaking about his unusual choice not to go directly to graduate school, Valcourt said he felt a private lab would give him an opportunity to learn a new research style and added that he “would value the experience of trying something new.”

After two years, Valcourt said he hopes to attend Harvard, Stanford or MIT but would like to wait to see the direction of his research before making a decision.

Apart from his academic work, Valcourt is involved with a variety of extracurricular organizations on campus. He is the current chair of the Princeton Tiger humor magazine, speakers chair for the Student Bioethics Forum and a leader trainer for the Outdoor Action pre-orientation program. He also works as an Orange Key campus tour guide and serves as a peer tutor and peer adviser in Wilson College.

“I view some of these activities as a way to stay sane when work gets crazy and use them as an outlet to work off stress,” Valcourt said. “I never thought being on Tiger Mag would be seen as something positive.”

Valcourt said he was “such a different person before coming into Princeton,” and added that he is graduating with more confidence and maturity. “Princeton taught me how to do science and provided me with a valuable toolset which will help me going forward in life,” he said.