BIOPHYSICAL SOCIETY NEWSLETTER
“When I was little I would say that I wanted to be a doctor during the day
and perform in ballets at night. It turned out a little differently,” says
, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at Wesleyan Uni-
versity. Etson began training as a ballet dancer from the age of seven, and
started her career as a dancer after graduating high school. “I performed and
choreographed professionally, both in ballet and in other dance genres, and I
got my bachelor’s degree in fine arts from New York University with a major
in dance,” she says. After a few years, she decided that she was ready to stop
performing, and returned to school.
She had always been interested in science, and in high school her parents en-
couraged her to take the most difficult science and math courses, even as she
was training to be a professional ballet dancer. “I wanted to go to a perform-
ing arts high school,” Etson explains, “but they wouldn’t let me because they
wanted me to get a solid academic education, not just learn about the arts.”
That strong science foundation helped Etson as she started at Hunter College
of the City University of New York, pursuing a second bachelor’s degree with
intentions of becoming a medical doctor.
Etson’s mother had been a middle school math and science teacher, and her
father an electrical engineer who was involved in the development of the first
Automatic Teller Machines (ATM). “Science was definitely something we
talked about at home, but I didn’t really have a good sense of how a person
would become an academic scientist,” she says.
In her introductory physics class, she realized that
she loved the subject, but was unsure about what
careers would be open to her should she pursue a
physics degree. “I asked the professor about careers
in physics,” Etson explains. “He was very encour-
aging, and suggested that I apply for the Minority
Access to Research Careers (MARC) scholarship.” She took his advice and
was selected as a MARC scholar, which supported her to continue toward
earning her bachelor’s degree in physics.
As part of the MARC program, Etson was able to do research in an optics
lab at Hunter College and spent a summer working in
neuroscience laboratory at Columbia University. While she was at Columbia,
Etson attended a talk about research using simulations based on molecular
forces to try to link together various crystal structures of ion channels to cre-
ate an animation of how they might move during gating. “I thought that was
incredibly fascinating, and I started asking people lots of questions about it,”
she says. “One friendly postdoc told me that I should think about studying
biophysics, and he even pointed me to the Biophysical Society website. I was
hooked, and I decided that I wanted to study biophysics in graduate school.”
Etson went on to a PhD program in biophysics at Harvard University, study-
ing in the lab of
Antoine van Oijen
. During her PhD studies, Etson became
interested in single molecule techniques, which she uses in her work today. “I
was always dissatisfied with the very deterministic descriptions of biological
processes that I had heard in less advanced coursework. My physics training
made me feel that these descriptions could not be realistic,” she explains. “I
really got excited about the idea that when you study these processes at the
Joseph D. Puglisi
Antoine van Oijen
Biophysical Society Newsletter
(ISSN 0006-3495) is published
twelve times per year, January-
December, by the Biophysical
Society, 11400 Rockville Pike, Suite
800, Rockville, Maryland 20852.
Distributed to USA members
and other countries at no cost.
Canadian GST No. 898477062.
Postmaster: Send address changes
to Biophysical Society, 11400
Rockville Pike, Suite 800, Rockville,
MD 20852. Copyright © 2015 by
the Biophysical Society. Printed in
the United States of America.
All rights reserved.
I never want to forget how
important five minutes can be for
someone who is trying to find his
or her path.
Biophysicist in Profile