Empowered by a Saint Mary Education

Rachel Thomas was hard to miss on a warm August morning.

With a wide smile, USM lacrosse T-shirt, and light cascading around her from the Keleher Learning Commons windows, she stood out among the selection of students gathered in the space.

The senior’s noticeable grin could have been the result of a number of things — concluding a successful summer internship, landing a research opportunity, or returning to Saint Mary for the semester – though it was likely a combination of these elements.

But just a few years ago, Thomas’ radiance wasn’t nearly as bright.

“Before coming to Saint Mary, I thought I was just another student,” the biology and chemistry major said. “I didn’t really think I had very much potential in anything academic. Coming here, the professors really took an interest in me. They noticed me and that I love to learn. They really catered to that, supported my educational growth, and offered me opportunities to advance.”

Rachel_Thomas RECOLOREDShe capitalized on one of those opportunities this summer through a competitive internship at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. USM Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Masa Watanabe, who is a visiting faculty member in the lab, encouraged Thomas and other students to apply.

Through that recommendation, she went on to research the stimulator of interferon genes, a protein believed to have potential for treating cancer. Thomas and other researchers explored that theory by running simulated experiments known as molecular dynamics. These simulations require large amounts of computing power, so the team utilized one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers known as Cori.

“There were a couple things that I took away from this internship that really helped springboard me forward,” she said. “I was able to build a lot of confidence in myself. Being put in a situation like that and having the pressure to perform, I exceeded my own expectations. It opened my eyes to a world of science and opportunities that I had never considered before.”

Thomas is continuing the simulations back at Saint Mary and is now eyeing a career in research.

“I love Saint Mary. I really do,” she said. “It’s been a positive experience for me. I appreciate the support I’ve received from professors. Their belief in me has helped me do things I wouldn’t normally do.”

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