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  • Senior Katie Brennan visits a chip stand on Lake Malawi during a volunteer trip to Africa.
06/14/2012 07:00:00

The Path Less Traveled

Senior uses Caltech as the stepping-stone for a global education

Growing up, Katie Brennan didn't have a lot of opportunities to travel. So when she started her biology studies at Caltech, one of her main goals was to explore the world. Thanks to a plenitude of funding from the Institute, Brennan—a graduating senior—can now cross two more continents and the mountains of Washington State off her list.

Starting out small the summer after her freshman year, Brennan traveled to Detroit's Wayne State University, near her hometown of Grosse Pointe, for a SURF project. There, she did research in bioinformatics to help develop tools for analyzing the structure of RNA. Before returning to sunny SoCal, she attended a weeklong retreat, deep in the woods of Washington State, as a recipient of the annual Don Shepard Essay Contest, which awards funding for "a program of self-enrichment outside of science."

"I had a friend who took sky diving lessons, and another one built his own guitar. I went to a retreat center in the mountains," says Brennan, who had to take two planes, a bus, a ferry, and another bus to reach the old mining town of Holden, where the center was located. "I went hiking. I learned how to do pottery. There were deer eating outside of my door. It was really great."

For the summer between her sophomore and junior years, she applied for and won the Caltech Y's Studenski Award, which provides funding for students to travel and explore an area outside of academics. Brennan chose to go to Malawi to volunteer with Project Peanut Butter (PPB), a nonprofit organization focused on pediatric-malnutrition clinic work and research.

"Their aim is to end malnutrition, and they have developed a special kind of peanut butter that can help children recover from malnutrition very quickly," says Brennan, who spent a month and a half working in the clinic. "And once they've recovered, they are less likely to relapse into malnutrition. It's very impressive what the organization does."

In fact, Brennan was so impressed that she returned to Malawi this past summer to work on a PPB research project. This time, she was funded by the George W. Housner Student Discovery Fund, which provides support for independent study, including travel. 

Back in Africa, she worked on a study that looked at a correlation between environmental enteropathy—or intestinal infections linked to environmental factors—and malnutrition, spending three months in the impoverished nation of Malawi. It is not uncommon for families there with multiple children to have some kids who are malnourished and others that are not, so the study enrolled sets of young twins to compare individuals with similar genetic backgrounds and living environments. "It was fun because I got to work with hundreds of twins, and they were all so adorable," says Brennan.

Determined not to let her senior year go by without more travel, Brennan studied abroad at University College London for her first term. There, she had the ability to break away from biology courses and take a class in archaeology called Ancient Egypt in London.

"Our classes were taught in the British Museum, and we would have lectures in the Egyptian Gallery, which was a hugely unique experience," says Brennan, who also visited Paris, Oxford, and Dublin during her semester in Europe. "One of the biggest Egypt artifact museums in the world—the Petrie Museum—is actually on the UCL campus, so we also had class there, which was really great."

When she's not taking part in global excursions, Brennan is very active in both house activities and campus life—she is a member of both Blacker and Dabney houses, and was co-class president of the senior class this year. For the past three years, she has also been involved with a local charity called Elizabeth House that provides shelter for homeless pregnant women. What started as a volunteer commitment led to a part-time job and a possible career path: Brennan is hoping to work in development after graduation to fundraise for nonprofits. 

Her parting advice for new students is to apply for all the funds that Caltech has available. "There are so many!" she says. "They have funding for parties, for house life, for travel, for international research, all which really help you make the most of your experience here and away from campus."

Written by Katie Neith