Scott S. Chilton says his broad interest in the arts and athletics, communication and outreach have made him a better science student.
When he was applying to college, Scott S. Chilton was interested in so many subjects that he had a difficult time deciding which one to declare as his possible major. When his favorite high school teacher advised him to “choose the subject that is the most fun,” Chilton immediately thought of biology.
Now, Chilton, 22, is choosing biology again as he begins pursing a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University. But he says his broad interests in communication, outreach, athletics, and the arts have combined to make him a better scientist. “My interests have all melded together,” Chilton says. For example, sports and science are very similar. “You end up working a long time on something and it takes years to see the fruits of your labor. You are always looking for new solutions and making new goals.”
Growing up in Northern California, Chilton enjoyed the challenge of taking things apart and putting them back together, like the baseball gloves he would repair with his dad. His middle school and high school teachers recognized his curiosity and channeled Chilton’s energy into studying science—in the classroom, at science fairs, and in a university laboratory. Indeed, after spending a summer doing experiments in plant genetics at the University of California, Davis, Chilton tried to continue his research as a high school senior in Tracy, California. "I was able to grow the plants I needed for the research, but for the most part I wasn't really able to complete the project," says Chilton, remembering his struggle to modify his experiments to fit within restrictions on using certain chemicals at his school.
Chilton decided to major in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the varsity crew and the mock trial teams, mentored other students, and sought out a research experience right away. He worked in the lab of Sallie Chisholm, whose research team studies Prochlorococcus, one of the most abundant photosynthetic marine bacteria in the Earth’s oceans.
During his junior year, Chilton was seriously injured during crew team practice, and needed nine months to recover. He was disappointed to give up crew, but he capitalized on the situation. “It opened up time for other things,” says Chilton, who had been training 12 to 18 hours a week for almost three years. After the accident, Chilton took on more responsibility in the lab. He worked on a project that involved developing a method to exchange snippets of DNA inside Prochlorococcus to help identify the function of each stretch of DNA. The research ran into some bumps that caused it to take much longer than planned. Looking back, Chilton says, "If it was easy, someone else would have done it already.”
Chilton's commitment impressed Chisholm and his other MIT professors, and they recommended him for the HHMI Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), which connected him with HHMI investigator Joanne Chory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. There, Chilton helped to develop new tools that would help scientists determine the varying concentrations of important enzymes within a plant cell. Apart from learning more about how science is done, he learned about lab life as a member of Chory’s group. The EXROP experience made him feel part of a scientific community. "Now I have people I can talk to who may be my colleagues in the future," he says.
Today Chilton, who is in his first year of graduate studies at Harvard, is interested in biochemistry and structural biology. No matter which field he ultimately chooses to specialize in, he expects to become a biology professor who will have an impact on science education. “My goal as a scientist is to always be a pioneer, pushing the frontiers of knowledge and possibility,” says Chilton, an African American. “There are not many people like me in the field of biology. I want to lead by example—like any good scientist or pioneer.”