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Hertz Fellow Receives $250,000 Honor

April 12, 2010 | by Megan Fellman
Joshua Waitzman is training to be a doctor and biophysicist in a rigorous Northwestern dual-degree program that will result in both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees. 

Kinesin in “The Inner Life of the Cell”

Brown Band on ice

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Joshua Waitzman completed his first two years of medical school at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and passed his board exams. Now he is in his first year of graduate school, working intensely in a Feinberg lab that focuses on tiny molecular motors. He has six years of study to go before he receives his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees.

Ultimately he would like to lead a biophysics research group while seeing patients. Judging from his latest award, reaching that goal will be no problem at all.

Waitzman -- who plays trumpet for stress relief -- has learned that The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation has named him a Hertz Fellow, an honor that provides $250,000 in no-strings-attached support for graduate studies.

"I'm humbled that the foundation selected me for this honor," said Waitzman, a native of West Hartford, Conn. "When I first applied for the fellowship it seemed such an unlikely and incredible possibility. When I received the news, I couldn't wait to share it with my friends and family, who've been so supportive of me. The fellowship's generous support allows me to innovate and try something new. It gives me creative control over what research questions I pursue."

He is one of 15 young student leaders in the applied sciences and engineering fields selected from a national pool of nearly 600 applicants. Recipients must display high academic achievement and the capacity to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in their field.

"We helped Josh at the interview stage of the application process, where he articulated difficult scientific concepts with clarity and demonstrated a charismatic presence, breadth of interests, and commitment to the greater good -- all desirable qualities for a Hertz Fellow," said Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, associate director of Northwestern's Office of Fellowships.

Northwestern's rigorous dual-degree program trains physician-scientists for careers in both patient care and biomedical research. Waitzman says he's up for the challenge. He is looking forward to following in his father's footsteps, though he didn't set out to do so. His father, David, is a physician-scientist and neuro-opthalmologist at the University of Connecticut.

"At first I didn't think I wanted to go down this hybrid career path," Waitzman said, "but I like the science and also interacting with people -- talking to them and applying knowledge to address their problems. I realized I didn't want to give either one up."

For the past year (his first year of graduate school), Waitzman has been working in the lab of Sarah Rice, an assistant professor of cell and molecular biology at Feinberg. He studies the regulatory mechanisms of kinesin motor proteins, critical molecular components that ferry cargo around the cell. "Kinesin is a more efficient motor than an internal combustion engine," Waitzman says, "with much to teach us." He hopes to identify motifs that may translate into efficient energy use on a more macroscopic scale.

"Josh is a lot of fun to work with, and everything he does is ridiculously good," said Rice, Waitzman's thesis adviser. "He also is extremely humble. When I asked how the final Hertz interview went, Josh said, ‘OK,' which meant it was flawless. I knew then he got it. He expects a lot out of himself. Josh has determination, creativity and the ability to deal well with the unexpected. He's someone you'd want on your team to crack a clinical case."

Rice says Waitzman's graduate work in kinesin motor proteins has clinical legs, which is critical for a physician-scientist in developing a robust research program. "We want people to know his work and for him to be a household name, in scientific circles," she said.

Waitzman also is a musician -- with a number of unusual experiences on his performance résumé. "I've played the trumpet since the age of seven, and music has been my stress reliever and life coach," Waitzman said. "Through music, I've learned how to build relationships with others and accomplish major goals."

He most recently played trumpet for the DuPage Community Concert Band. During his years as an undergraduate at Brown University, he performed one evening with the Chicago rock band Wilco in a New Jersey bar, played folk music with a marching band in rural Portugal, and even performed while on ice skates with the Brown Band, the world's only ice-skating band. While in high school, Waitzman and his school's jazz band played with Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center in New York.

Since 1963, The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, one of the nation's leading non-profit organizations, has provided the nation's most generous Ph.D. fellowships to more than 1,070 gifted applied scientists and engineers.
Topics: People