Livia “Livy” Wilz is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. She is working on her Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology.
The daughter of Mick and Jenny Wilz, Brookville, is a 2005 Franklin County High School graduate. She completed her undergraduate work at Indiana University in 2009, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry.
“I’m a graduate student, but it’s a little different than you would expect compared to other degrees. My tuition is paid for as well as a stipend for my work paid for by research grants from government or private organizations. So it’s kind of like a paid internship. I taught undergraduate students for two semesters and took classes when I started, but now all I do is research. I have been in the program for four and a half years now and expect to graduate with my Ph.D. in about a year and a half.”
Her boss, Randy Schekman, along with two other researchers, Jim Rothman and Thomas Sudhof, recently won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
How I felt when he won: I was very excited and proud of him for finally achieving this award. He had been in the running for almost a decade now. Since the committee that decides the Nobel is based in Sweden, Randy was called at 1:30 a.m. Pacific Time, and the news broke pretty early in the morning back at home. I actually found out when my mom called me at 5:30 a.m. here because she heard it on the radio .... The day of the announcement, he was whisked around campus followed by cameras for most of the day, but the lab (workers) did get about an hour of time with him for a champagne toast. Randy has a very formidable mustache, so we found some fake ones to wear in honor of him. He thought that was very funny. We then had a campus-wide celebration.
What I’m studying: I’m using human cancer cells grown in petri dishes to study a process called autophagy, which means “self eating.” When cells are under stressful conditions, like starvation or internal damage, autophagy is activated. When activated, a sac inside the cell surrounds the damaged or unimportant parts of the cell and delivers it to a place where the contents can be degraded and used for survival. It’s basically like the recycling man of the cell. This is important to study because it is involved in many diseases like cancer, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases, like Huntington’s and Parkinson’s. However, little is known about the inner workings of autophagy right now, so before we start to try to develop drugs to alter it to treat diseases, we have to know the details of how it works. That’s what I’m trying to do now.
My daily life: I typically work around 50-60 hours a week and often on weekends because my experiments often last about five to six days from start to finish. I’ve recently moved to be close to campus so I don’t waste any extra time on commuting to work. My day is spent tending to the human cancer cells growing in dishes, doing various experiments on them to better understand autophagy, reading current scientific literature, discussing experiments with labmates and attending seminars from visiting scholars.
Future goals: After I finish my Ph.D., I will go on to a postdoctoral position, where I take my experience and expertise and apply that to another project in a different lab. After that, I’m not exactly sure what route I will take since the job market is a little rocky at the moment because of the financial crisis. I hope to either continue in academia and become a research professor at a university or work for a biomedical company like Lilly. Either way, I plan on moving back to the Midwest. As much as I love California, there’s nothing better than being closer to home.
My family: I grew up on a farm outside of Brookville and have one older sister, Sarah, and a younger brother, Willy. My family is very supportive of my career in science even though it took me so far away from them. I keep in regular contact with them, and my parents visit me at least once or twice a year. My childhood was great on the farm. I was a 10-year member of Franklin County 4-H and showed horses and cows among other projects. Life on a farm definitely taught me to work hard, which has been helpful in my current career.
Greatest accomplishments: Getting into Berkeley and having the opportunity to move across the country. Professionally, it put me in a world-renowned research institution and gave me the opportunity to work with amazing scientists like Randy, although he is just one of the many talented scientists here. Personally, moving to the (San Francisco) Bay area has been a formative experience for a girl coming from a small Midwestern town. Overall, the Bay area is such a diverse and welcoming place. My friends and colleagues are from around the world, with many different backgrounds. Getting to experience life in a different place and meet people from so many different walks of life has definitely been an eye-opener for me.
Advice to others: If something interests you, no matter what it is, stick to your guns and work hard to make it happen. Don’t worry if you’re the only one who is interested in a particular career or topic. In high school, I felt very alone because I felt that I was the only one who was really interested in a career in science research. However, once I went to IU, which is a great research institution, I found so many new friends like me who had the same passions and goals. Also, don’t be afraid to take that risk and move away from home to experience something new. With technology and social media, it is now pretty easy to keep in contact with family from a long distance. There’s a big world out there with many opportunities. Don’t be afraid to step out and experience it .... I would love to speak to and mentor any students in the area who are interested in a career in science or give advice to teachers who are guiding their students into these careers. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.