Chemistry at Hillsdale: It’s not Just Washing Glassware

Written by Stephanie Gordon

Madison Pletan, ’18, didn’t come to Hillsdale College for the science. She came because Hillsdale cared about things that are foundational and lasting. And while science became her main focus at Hillsdale, her very favorite classes were the classes that delved deep and wrestled hard with those sorts of fundamental questions about truth, God, history, and human nature.

“The core curriculum is incredible because it gives everyone a common vocabulary to talk about these difficult topics,” said Madison. “You know that everyone, no matter their major, has gone through Great Books and the Heritage classes and the rest, so when you’re having a late-night talk with a few friends you can reference Odysseus’s journey or Plato’s cave or Augustine and the pear tree and know that they know what you mean. I didn’t realize how special and rare that experience was until I left Hillsdale.”

Madison originally intended to major in chemistry after having a fantastic high school chemistry teacher, but after a couple summers of organic chemistry research, she learned it wasn’t what she loved. She ended up majoring in biochemistry, thanks to her Hillsdale professors who helped find her niche.

“I’ve always been more interested in science relating to disease and human health,” she said. “Taking microbiology with Dr. Steiner and virology with Dr. Johnson helped me figure out that I’m most interested in a mechanistic approach to biology questions.”

A big reason why Madison chose Hillsdale was the quality of professor-student interactions. “I enjoyed having smaller classes (like the nine person virology class) held around a round table,” she said. “I love that every member of the chemistry faculty and most of the biology faculty knew me by name. They gave me lots of great advice for research opportunities, grad school, and career.”

She also appreciated the hands-on learning experiences at Hillsdale, and the ability to work on her own projects – not just washing glassware or repeating experiments that someone else came up with.

 “You’re under your professor’s guidance coming up with goals and designing experiments to test your hypotheses,” said Madison. “If you are motivated and diligent, you’ll be able to get quality research experience at Hillsdale.”

During her four years at Hillsdale, Madison was able to do full-time research each summer. She researched at Hillsdale in the lab of Dr. Courtney Meyet, at UC Davis studying organic synthesis, and the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, MI studying the human simplex virus.

Madison was accepted to PhD programs at the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and her ultimate choice, University of Michigan (which is ranked in the top five in the country for her field). Having high-quality research experiences was crucial to her grad school applications and interviews.

“I also benefited from having close relationships with professors who knew me, my resume, and my goals, and could write excellent, detailed letters of recommendation. Poor Dr. Meyet has probably written me 40 letters by this point-she is the best!”

Madison now studies cell biology, specifically protein trafficking and turnover, at the University of Michigan. And as someone who is now at a large public school for graduate work, Madison is very grateful for the four years she had at Hillsdale to not only enjoy science classes, but English, philosophy, and religion classes, long conversations with professors, and a small, close-knit community.

“I’m so thankful for the rich, varied intellectual life Hillsdale gave me. And the lifelong best friends,” Madison added.

As far as her future, she has no specific plans just yet.

“I’m interested in staying in academia in a teaching-focused role, largely because of my Hillsdale professors, but I’m trying to keep an open mind,” she said. “I have about three more years before I’ll graduate, so there’s no big rush.”

Stephanie Gordon, a lifelong Hillsdale native, is the Managing Editor of the Student Stories Blog. She is married to chiropractor, Dr. Matt Gordon, and has three children – Eloise, Flora, and Jack. When she has a spare moment, she enjoys paleo baking, floating on Baw Beese Lake, and breaking a sweat at the gym.

Published in May 2021