Mason Student’s Research Mentor? Nobel Winner
Contributing to a research paper alongside a Nobel laureate is no small accomplishment at any age, but even more so when you’re still in your teens.
“There’s my name with all these PhDs, and I don’t have my undergraduate degree yet,” says George Mason University chemistry junior Grey Madison, with more than a little astonishment. The Journal of Cell Biology published the paper this fall.
Madison was 17 and attending Northern Virginia Community College in Loudoun County when he landed an internship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) two years ago. He studied T-cells, which are part of the body’s immune system.
Specifically, the study looked at the role of the actin arc cell, which allows the T-cell to envelop an infection.
Madison commuted two hours each way on public transportation from his home in Loudoun County to the NIH campus in Bethesda. He cared for the culture of cells by maintaining the nutritious substance they live in, as well as staining them so they would be visible using structured illumination microscopy and a high-resolution microscope developed by Nobel laureate Eric Betzig.
Now 19 and a transfer student at George Mason, Madison began an internship at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study in February 2015. He’s also part of Mason’s Students as Scholars program in the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR).
Research and internships are part of the fabric at Mason, says Karen Lee, assistant director at OSCAR. “In any major, any school, any student can participate. These experiences are some of the most transformative learning experiences students will have.”
Noted neuroscientist and Krasnow professor Giorgio Ascoli says the best way for many students to learn is by doing the work.
“Whether it’s T-cells or neural cells, the important thing to do is interact with data, people, and ideas that are stimulating, and then go out into the world,” Ascoli says.
While he landed a life-changing internship at the get-go, Madison says finding the next great opportunity is all about persistence.
“If you keep applying for opportunities, even if it doesn’t go anywhere at first, something eventually will happen. Don't give up.”
Madison knows about persistence—he was diagnosed with a learning disability in elementary school.
“Without the assistance of computer software, it is difficult to write [by hand] and it takes me a long time,” he says. “I grew unhappy with the disability label and the
stereotyping. That’s why I got my GED when I was 16 to start college. Kids with or without disabilities need to know there is plenty of hope to map your future.”
Outside of class, Madison has been studying morel mushroom cultivation (in his basement), brain disease, and quantum optics. Now he wants to continue studying neuromorphic engineering and perhaps create neuroprosthetics—devices that supplement the input or output of the nervous system. The possibilities of this nascent field include restoring sight to people who are blind, among other things.
His work at Krasnow could help researchers worldwide: He’s helping with the Hippocampome.org project, an internationally accessed neural database. An avid gamer, Madison is developing a software program to automate part of the labor-intensive project.
“Grey is definitely not the standard undergrad,” Ascoli says.