Garrett Graham, ’10, is not your stereotypical scholar—he’s an athlete, a scientist, and an explorer. He’s also the last of the Ethyl Scholars, a group of particularly talented young men and women interested in math and science that were awarded highly competitive scholarships to the University of Richmond over the course of almost 20 years.
“Around 1990, the Gottwald family decided to support science scholarships,” said Chemistry Professor Bill Myers, former head of the scholarship’s committee. “Before this there had never been scholarships directed solely at science and math students.
“The pattern of money and scholarships from the Gottwald family that followed over the years was exceptionally generous. The whole thing lasted close to twenty years, with an average of two new scholarship students being brought in per year.”
The Ethyl Science Scholarships weren’t endowed, but instead were paid for each year by the Ethyl Corporation, in which the Gottwald family had a lot of investments.
“When Garrett came into the program, it was almost immediately clear that he was good at everything,” Myers says. “This wasn’t unusual for Ethyl Scholars, but it wasn’t usual enough to not make him stand out.”
The last class of Ethyl Scholars graduated in May of 2009, but because Graham decided to take a year off between his sophomore and junior years, he is quite literally the last one.
During his first two years at Richmond, Graham divided his time between the lab and the track—his two passions. He thrived as a member of both the cross country and varsity track teams, and traveled to Cornell to complete research with their math department.
Graham’s passions, it turns out, would also lead him outside the lab and across the ocean.
Graham first became interested in China through a Quest International course “Global Cities: Shanghai.” He studied and visited the city of Shanghai, and, upon returning, felt that his curiosity hadn’t quite been quenched.
“I had the funds and the time to take a gap year,” Graham said. “I mean, why not? There wasn't any disadvantage. I felt like I needed time away to explore and look at a bunch of new things. My visit to Shanghai confirmed that China would be a great place to go, and I knew what an integral role it would play in the future.”
Myers fully supported the venture and let Graham put his scholarship on hold for a year.
“Here’s a young man that decides he wants to live in China, essentially as an immigrant, and learned enough of the language to function successfully,” Myers said. “He crafted his own study abroad program, but wasn’t really a college student. He became a teacher, a traveler and certainly a cultural ambassador. He was a student in the best sense of the term.”
Myers, however, wasn’t the only authority Graham had to seek approval from—his track coach also had to sign off on the plan.
“I knew that informing Coach Steve Taylor was the point of no return,” said Graham. “Once I told him, I was committed.”
Graham’s coach decided to raise the stakes. Taylor bet Graham a steak dinner that he wouldn’t return to the team after a year abroad.
“I told him ‘I’ll take that bet,’” Graham said.
And, after a successful return to the team, Graham had a good time telling Taylor about his exploits over dinner.
Graham returned to his academic pursuits with the same passion and zeal he did his athletic. That semester he began researching under Dr. Ovidiu Lipan.
Graham has been completing mathematical biology research under Lipan since he returned a year and a half ago. Lipan obtained his PhD in theoretical physics, which fascinated Graham.
“Before, I was kind of hopping around, working on mini projects with different professors,” Graham said. “Most of it was piggybacking with another student, and it never lasted more than a month or so. I was looking for my niche, but I also enjoyed getting exposed to a lot of different things. The research I’ve done with Dr. Lipan has gotten me really excited to try and pursue a career in academia,” he says. “We have two projects going on right now, one theoretical, one experimental.
“Our end goal is to develop mathematical guidelines that generally govern the biology of living systems. The research and the theory itself are still so young that we’re having to pick apart individual genetic networks in cells.”
Right now Graham’s research focuses mainly on the genetic circuit responsible for stress-response in a cell. Environmental stress destroys intracellular protein, killing the cell. Through experimentation involving heat stress, Graham, Lipan and their fellow researchers hope to derive a mathematical formula that governs this survival response in cells.
“The cell’s doing some complex math to make all this possible, and as far as we can tell, the operations showing up these switches are crazy!” Graham said.
After he graduates, Graham thinks he might take another gap year and work as a lab assistant somewhere to get the experience needed for programs at the University of Chicago, Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard or MIT.
“That’s me reaching for the stars,” he said. “But hey, you never know. I’ve figured out that I work best when I’m focused on a few main things. I have my running and my research. I know I’m where I’m supposed to be.”