2015 SUIP Student

Rachael Aikens

Swarthmore College


I’m a rising junior at Swarthmore College majoring in Biochemistry.  For the past year, I’ve worked in a cell and molecular biology laboratory studying the sea anemone Aiptasia Pallida.  Outside of the lab, I’m a blues, lindy hop, and west coast swing dancer, and a soprano in my College a Cappella group, Mixed Company.  I like to hike, draw, sing, and dance.  My after-graduation plans are fuzzy, but at the moment, here’s the working plan: I hope to take a gap year to go on adventures, then apply to be a part of an MD/PhD program studying genomics and computational biology.


My physicist/engineer parents raised me with a passion for the natural sciences, but I became interested in medicine in high school when I started reading the work of the physician-anthropologist Doctor Paul Farmer.  I was fascinated and driven by the idea of practicing a trade in providing care and improving human lives.  My life since then has been a tug-of-war between my devotion to science and research and my interests in health care. I talked to my research advisor with the biology department about my dilemma, and she pointed me to the CTSA program.  We both agreed it would be a great opportunity for me to work in a new laboratory and see if medical research is a good match for me.

I must admit, I’m still pretty unsure of where I stand on the bridge between the lab and the clinic, but my summer with the CTSA program has provided me with ample opportunities to explore and think about what it is I want in a career and lifestyle.  I’ve especially enjoyed weekly seminars from accomplished PhD, MD/PhD, and MD researchers.  I was paired with a flat-mate in my program that I adore, and I’m always able to bounce ideas back and forth with her and gather her thoughts as she goes through the same decision-making process.  I think that living in Philadelphia and working outside of my home institution has allowed me to grow as a person and make connections with other scientists and individuals who have lessons and opinions to inform me that I would not be able to find among the undergraduate students at my own small school.  Even though I’m not sure exactly what my plans are, my interactions with new people in research and outside of the laboratory have made me not nervous but excited for the coming years, wherever they may lead me.         


I love genomics. Usually when I tell my wet-lab biologist friends that I work in a computer lab, I get a few funny looks.  Although I was certainly nervous at first, I’m entirely in love with my dry lab.  The older students and post-docs in my lab are friendly, happy, and brilliant people who are more than willing to talk to an undergraduate about research or recipes, life plans or movie tickets. In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to learn how to work in Unix, Python, and R, and to start drafting a manuscript for a paper on my own independent research project with the help of my lab’s principal investigator.  I’m able to work directly with my research advisor as a guide, and my meetings with him have inspired and convinced me that biology needs scientists who are not afraid to employ computational and statistical expertise to answer questions in both translational and basic science.  Going forward into the fall and after graduation, I hope to find more work to do in bioinformatics, and teach myself as much as I can about the tools of code and mathematics.