March 29, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 13

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    Fourth-year student receives Churchill

    Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    When fourth-year Jesse Bloom discovered a scientific mystery in his home state of Montana two summers ago, his journalistic instincts eventually led him to his love for laboratory research. Despite a lack of enthusiasm for textbook science, Bloom has evolved from an aspiring writer to a biochemist who this month became one of 10 students in the United States to receive a Churchill Scholarship from the Winston Churchill Foundation.

    Bloom’s unusual road to the science labs at the University of Cambridge began with a passion for writing. Drawn to Chicago because his favorite author, the late Norman MacLean, taught here, Bloom spent the first half of college exploring his storytelling talent by writing for the student newspaper, the Chicago Weekly News, and his hometown newspapers in Montana.

    A member of Phi Beta Kappa, he also joined the poker club, ran track and field and cross country, and had no thoughts of becoming a scientist. “I always liked science, but most courses are based on learning from the textbooks. The answers are already there. You learn a lot of facts, but it isn’t very stimulating,” said Bloom.

    But his views about science changed during that summer break in his hometown, when he was assigned a story on chronic wasting disease in elk, which is the elk version of mad cow disease.

    “I interviewed a lot of scientists and no one could agree on anything about how CWD was transferred among elk. And no one wanted to be quoted saying something that would later be proven wrong.”

    Intrigued, Bloom delved into the current research on the disease, discovering the controversy and debate that often surrounds unanswered scientific questions. For Bloom, no textbook had depicted the excitement of performing cutting-edge research.

    The thrill of discovery, of pursuing answers in the laboratory, hooked the biochemistry major, who learned that the likely cause of chronic wasting disease was due to something called a prion––a form of a protein that misfolds and induces surrounding proteins to do the same.

    “I wanted to learn how to perform research and work in a lab myself. And as it turned out, Susan Lindquist, one of the top researchers in the field of yeast prions, was on campus,” Bloom said. He returned to campus in the fall of 1999 and asked Lindquist for a job.

    “I have had many undergraduates in my laboratory over the past 20 years. If I were to choose among them just one student who is the most gifted and versatile, and who has been a great pleasure to work with, it would be Jesse,” said Lindquist, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and the Albert D. Lasker Professor in Medical Sciences.

    “He sops up knowledge like a sponge and is completely self-motivated. He sets the highest standards for his work, and when things go wrong, as they invariably will in the beginning, he takes the setbacks with good grace, readjusts his sights and moves full-steam ahead. He also writes in a beautifully clear and lucid style. Not a common characteristic among scientists, I’m afraid.”

    Although Bloom spends less time running and playing poker, he continues to approach science like a journalist, trying to “gather a lot of facts and filter them to find a compelling story line.”

    To do that, Bloom will pursue a master’s degree in biochemistry or chemistry at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, where he will learn another approach to studying protein folding, using computer analysis to study their behavior.

    The Churchill award, worth approximately $25,000, includes one year of graduate study in science and technology as well as living expenses at Churchill College. Bloom is the ninth Chicago student to earn this prestigous scholarship.

    “One of the great things about Chicago is that I had the opportunity to work with a scientist who is at the forefront of this research,” said Bloom, who eventually plans to teach and study prions at a research university.

    Established in 1963, the Churchill Scholarship was created to send talented American students pursuing advanced degrees in science and technology to Churchill College, which is the national memorial to Sir Winston Churchill and houses his archives.