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McMullan winner's passion for liberal arts shapes Emory career

Emory Report

Science, the arts and social justice formed the foundation of a remarkable four years for Caroline Holmes, who graduates with highest honors in physics and biology and is this year's winner of the McMullan Award, which comes with $25,000. Emory Photo/Video

Science, the arts and social justice formed the foundation of a remarkable four years for Caroline Holmes, whose passionate pursuit of knowledge and service earned Emory’s highly selective McMullan Award.

Made possible by a generous gift from Emory alumnus William Matheson 47G, the award recognizes Emory College of Arts and Sciences graduates who show extraordinary promise for future leadership and rare potential for service to their community, the nation and the world. The McMullan Award includes $25,000 to be used as the recipient chooses.

Holmes, who graduates with highest honors in physics and biology, heads to Princeton University next year to begin a doctorate program in physics, where she will do research in theoretical biophysics. She brings with her a track record of research achievements that would be the envy of many accomplished graduate students.

As a popular peer tutor in physics, she actively shared her love of science with others, and she also organized speaker events that brought notable scientists to campus for public talks. But science is just one sphere where the Westchester, New York, native devoted her time at Emory.

“What attracted me to Emory initially, and what I found as a student, is that this is a community open to new ideas, with a deep appreciation for questions and curiosity, and great faculty who facilitate that kind of learning,” Holmes says. “It’s also a place where a person can do science and also be involved in the arts and social justice, and no one finds that strange or says you can’t do something.”

Creative writing was an interest early on. As a first-year student, Holmes participated in a seminar with former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey that nurtured a passion for poetry and led to her involvement with Alloy, a student-run literary magazine. Eventually, though, her research in physics and biology took precedence (there are only so many hours in the day).

Throughout her time at Emory, Holmes also played viola in the Emory Symphony Orchestra. She shared her musical talents through weekly service trips with Volunteer Emory to work with the Atlanta Music Project, which gave her the opportunity to provide instrument lessons and exposure to classical music to children in underserved communities in the city. That experience led her to become more involved with Volunteer Emory’s social justice efforts.

This past year, Holmes served as director of the Social Justice Dialogues program, which holds regular community discussions around class, race and socioeconomic differences —and how to navigate them as students.

“We saw the dialogues as an opportunity to move away from just academic discourse and theory to something more practical, where we all get together and just talk, and develop reasonable action steps that will help improve the Emory community,” Holmes says. “It’s an ongoing process.”

Paradigm-changing research

It is in the realm of scientific research, however, where Holmes is likely to turn her passion for knowledge into a path-breaking career in the relatively new interdisciplinary field of theoretical biophysics.

She has already made a mark as the co-author of several papers, including one published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that her professors described as “paradigm-changing.”

Working in the group of Ilya Nemenman, professor of physics and biology, and in collaboration with a graduate student in the lab of Sam Sober, assistant professor of biology, Holmes conducted research that discovered that skeletal muscles in vertebrates (using a songbird model) are controlled not by the rate, but by the precise timing patterns of neural action potentials (the electrical signals that the brain uses to processes information). 

This upends current knowledge about how the brain controls behavior, and may have serious applications to brain-machine interfaces and neural prosthetic devices, Sober explains.

“Caroline’s accomplishments are absolutely exceptional given that she performed this work as an undergraduate; I can think of only one other student who produced such groundbreaking work while also excelling in the College,” says Sober. “Caroline has tremendous potential and I’m looking forward to watching her career unfold.”

Holmes’ career in science started when she first got to campus as a Woodruff Research Scholar. Nemenman didn’t quite know what to do with the first-year student who showed up at his door two weeks into the school year, saying she wanted to work with him doing research. He told her that until she could code and handle high-level computer programming, he didn’t have a space for her.

A month later, Holmes was back — ready to code — after teaching herself the necessary technical skills to work in Nemenman’s theoretical physics lab alongside graduate students and post-docs. 

“She has an intense curiosity and zest for knowledge about everything. She is not buying it just because it comes from the mouth of a professor or a textbook. She always asks ‘why,’ Nemenman says. “That drive to always want to know more is what makes her an extraordinary undergraduate with high potential to have an impact in her field – or whatever she chooses to do.”

Her junior year, he urged her to expand her scientific perspective by working with another professor who could give her a fresh approach to scientific questions and problems. That brought her to the lab of Daniel Weissman, assistant professor of physics, who oversaw her honors thesis in physics, which modeled how the role of males in sexual reproduction allows populations to adapt more quickly to changing conditions.

“I am blown away by Caroline's talent and maturity as a researcher. In her thesis, she thought deeply not just about the specifics of her problem, but why it's important and how it's relevant to the big questions in evolutionary biology,” says Weissman. “She essentially already has all the skills that most budding scientists go to graduate school to learn.”

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