• Tommy Newton
  • Tommy Newton
  • SAS '22
  • Major(s): Molecular Biology & Biochemistry
  • Minor(s): Chemistry, Mathematics, Music

Activities: Rutgers Undergraduate Research Journal (RURJ) Peer Review Program, Math Grader Association, SASHP Peer Tutor Program, SASHP Peer Mentor Program, Aresty Research Assistant Program, Rutgers Symphony Band, SAS Peer Influencers, SASHP Honors Peer Leader

What attracted you to Rutgers University and the Honors/Scholars Program?
I grew up in Milltown, a small town in Central New Jersey. Milltown just so happens to be a 3-minute drive down the road from the beautiful Cook/Douglass campus. Growing up near Rutgers, you have it almost ingrained in you that you'll end up studying there and that you're meant to be a Scarlet Knight. I resisted this ideology for a long time, but I'm so happy that I made the choice to attend Rutgers. With a huge focus on interdisciplinary education, Rutgers and the SASHP provided me, a highly indecisive person at the time, with the perfect avenue for adventuring academically. There are almost no limitations on what you can do at Rutgers, and I loved the prospect of going beyond the barriers of traditional higher education. The SASHP gave me a community unlike any other, living and learning alongside like-minded individuals I may have never met otherwise. Despite initial hesitancy, I knew that I wouldn't have an experience anywhere else like what was possible at Rutgers.

Why did you choose your major and/or minor?
Originally, I had planned on being a Biomathematics major because I was interested in the intersectionality of natural and physical sciences. However, after taking my first Biochemistry class and starting to do research, I realized I was most passionate about answering unknowns about innate biological processes. Thus, I pursued a more biology-heavy MBB degree, while still studying other areas I was interested in like chemistry, math, and music.

Tell us a little bit about what you're doing now. What was your first job after Rutgers? Where you do you live? What was your first job after Rutgers? Where you do you live?
I recently completed my first year as a PhD student at Columbia University in New York City in the Integrated Program for Cellular, Molecular, and Biomedical Studies. I am on the Biochemistry, Molecular Biophysics, and Structural Biology track, with my top interest being structural biology using cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM) to understand how and why proteins work the way that they do. I work under the direction of Dr. Alexander Sobolevsky, where I study a class of proteins called ionotropic glutamate receptors (iGluRs) which mediate excitatory neurotransmission within the central nervous system. We analyze iGluR structure and function through a variety of biochemical and structural techniques in order to further our understanding of high cognitive brain functions.

What has been your greatest professional and/or personal accomplishment since you graduated from Rutgers?
In the first year of your PhD, you typically do 2-3 lab rotations in order to find the lab that best fits your professional wants and needs. Being that New York City is a hub for structural biology research, I was able to do my first rotation under Dr. Bridget Carragher, the former co-director of the New York Structural Biology Center. Working closely with a senior scientist at the National Center for In-situ Tomographic Ultramicroscopy (NCITU), Dr. Misha Kopylov, we were able to use cryoEM to structurally characterize cage assemblies of a virus-like particle called Q-beta. This upcoming July, I will be presenting a platform talk at the Microscopy and Microanalysis conference in Minneapolis, MN ahead of publication, where I'll be discussing novel findings that will be useful to extrapolate a mechanism behind the assembly of these viruses.

Was there a class and/or experience at Rutgers that led you to pursuing your current career?
When I started at Rutgers, I knew that research was the end goal. I have always been the person to ask the questions of "why?" or "how?" whenever talking about science. During my freshman year, I was eager to get my hands dirty and get to bench. I was pointed in the direction of the Aresty Research Assistant Program, which gave me the opportunity to find labs on campus that were looking for students to join their projects. At the time, I didn't know what I wanted to study, but I knew I wanted to be a researcher. I stumbled upon Dr. Wei Dai's lab, where they use cryo-electron tomography (cryoET) to study a range of biological processes within native environments. After working in the lab for 3 years, I was hooked on structural biology and knew that I wanted to further my education and pursue a PhD in the field.

What three words describe your experience at Rutgers and the Honors/Scholars Program? 
Challenging. Refreshing. Rewarding.

How has your Rutgers and Honors education benefited you in your post-Rutgers life?
Rutgers and the SASHP showed me that you are not just a number. While it sometimes is overwhelming with how many people there are at the university, the Rutgers family makes you feel like you belong and that you won't ever get washed away by the crowd. I made relationships with people who will be professional colleagues as well as friends for many years to come. Within my four years at Rutgers, I grew as a student, as a mentor, as a scientist, and as a person. I attribute a lot my success to the SASHP community, due in particular to the guidance and advisory of Dean Kim-Lee. Whether it be me constantly berating her with emails or bugging her at different events, she was always there to help me along the way, unconditionally.

What advice do you have for our current SAS Honors Program students?
Explore. Rutgers is the place to be when trying to find yourself professionally and personally. Don't be scared to try new things, but rather dive in head first. I did it and it put me where I am today.

Are you a Rutgers Honors alum? Be featured in an upcoming Honors Alumni Spotlight by completing our online submission form.

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