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Wills '16 wins 2015 Hasselmo Prize

Biology major Brandon Wills ’16 of Mazon, Ill., is the 2015-16 winner of the Hasselmo Prize for Academic Pursuit

One of the inaugural group of students in the Augustana College Science Scholars program sponsored by the National Science Foundation, at first Brandon Wills considered majoring in music education.

“At Augustana I could play my clarinet, be in band, do all the music stuff, and still be able to major in biology,” he said. “I knew [Augustana] had great programs for both music and science, so either way, I was going to get a great experience.”What he really wanted was to pursue both music and science. That’s why he chose Augustana.

Research in the lab with biology professor Dr. Lori Scott gave him his focus. “I discovered early that I have a real passion for doing research, whether it’s with bacteria or genetics,” he said.

His work with Dr. Scott involves Meiothermus ruber, a bacteria that grows in “really weird environments… in nuclear waste and places like that, where you wouldn’t expect things to grow.” Part of their research involves inducing mutations into the bacteria cells, and then using different techniques to determine which gene mutated and what function it played.

On their collaboration on the Meiothermus ruber genome analysis project, Dr. Scott said, “What I have come to appreciate most about Brandon… is his genuine interest in learning and his wonderful creativity and curiosity. I see great potential in him for a career as a researcher.”

Wills’ research experience has led to the offer of an internship this summer at the Argonne National Laboratory, where he will work side-by-side with the internationally known scientist Dr. Andrzej Joachimiak on protein x-ray crystallography—in other words, “sending beams of X-rays through proteins to be able to identify the structure of these proteins—I guess, to put it into non-scientific terms,” he said.

Personal and professional

After Augustana, Wills plans to go to graduate school for genetics, especially to contribute to the study of genetic defects. That’s where the Hasselmo Prize comes in.

Wills was “very surprised, and very happy” about the award and what it will mean to his graduate school experience. He sees it as helping him become a better applicant for graduate school, first, and a better scientist overall.

Along with his professional leaning, the study of genetics is personal for him.

“I actually was born with a congenital heart defect which had to be repaired shortly after I was born,” he said. “What’s interesting about this defect is that doctors and scientists don’t yet know if it’s genetic or not.”

Through his research, he realized, “Maybe through studying genetics we can prevent some of these things from happening, so we won’t have to worry about them in the future.”

Minding the music

In the meantime, what about music? Well, he now plays two instruments instead of one.

“Concert band is a nice addition,” Wills said. “I’m still able to play my clarinet, take lessons and take all my challenging biology classes…without having any musical interference.”

He also picked up the bass so he could join an indie acoustic group, Improbability Drive, with a couple of friends on guitar and vocals. The band plays covers and their own originals in Brew by the Slough on campus, and around the Quad Cities.

Demonstrating that balance of interests found in so many Augustana students, Wills commented, “It’s a pretty good way to get the scientific, quantitative side out, and also the creative side.”

The Hasselmo Prize was established by Dr. Nils Hasselmo, Class of 1957, in recognition of the ways in which his Augustana education both informed and transformed his life and vocational calling. Dr. Hasselmo served as the president of the University of Minnesota from 1988 until his retirement in 1997. From 1998 to 2006, he was president of the Association of American Universities.

Begun in 2011, the Hasselmo Prize awards $5,000 to an Augustana student who intends to pursue a career in higher education teaching or research. Award funds can be used to buy books or other resources; support travel to conferences, professional meetings, special collections, laboratories or graduate schools; or otherwise provide access to relevant, academically rigorous opportunities to encourage the pursuit of academics as a vocation.

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