Wright's Omnivorous Mind Excels in Arts and Sciences

May 13, 2010 — The paintings of Willem Claesz Heda. Gene-specific bacterial vectors. Cathedrals. Museums. Words. Organic chemistry.

Fourth-year University of Virginia student Madeleine Wright lights up when talking about all of these. And she knows before heading to graduate school in a year or so that she has a difficult decision to make – art or science?

The art history and chemistry major loves both and has done equally well in them as an undergraduate in the College of Arts & Sciences. Two of her favorite courses were a class on 16th-century Dutch oil painters and a yearlong immersion in organic chemistry.

The art history course, taught by Larry Goedde, introduced her to artists who are now among her favorites, in particular Heda.

"I'm drawn to the Dutch because of their uncanny ability to paint like a photograph. Their works look so realistic that it's almost as if someone took a picture of a still life," Wright said. "I especially like how they paint the light on glass and silver cups. Absolutely gorgeous."

Her appreciation for these artists is infectious. She recently gave her parents a tour of the Dutch painters collection, a permanent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. "My Mom loved it," recalled Wright, whose mother is a watercolor artist and father is a patent lawyer. "I think my Dad was bored," she said, laughing.

Of professor Robert Burnett's organic chemistry class, Wright said she "really enjoyed organic because we were studying chemistry on the molecular scale.

"I enjoyed learning the mechanisms through which molecules interact, how the electrons flow between them to create one molecule from another. I guess I like to know how the reactions on the microscopic scale determine a macroscopic effect ... how the opening of the calcium channels can cause muscle contraction, or how a nerve impulse travels rapidly through the body via chemical and potential changes to cause movement."

Wright was not only impressed with Burnett's teaching style, but with his ability to know all the students' names. First semester there were roughly 120 students, and second semester there were 70, she said. "He still knows me when he sees me."

Her grasp of organic chemistry and the other science courses led to her becoming a teaching assistant and conducting research during her four years in the College.

She served as a TA in professor Charles Grisham's biochemistry class. "I loved that experience," Wright said of helping others understand new concepts and material.

Wright conducted research in the lab of John Bushweller, a professor of molecular physiology and biological physics, who is researching leukemia.

"My job was to make bacterial vectors with certain genes inserted into them," Wright explained. "I'd put them in a certain strain of bacteria to express the gene. Once the gene was expressed, we'd get a protein."

Wright said her hypotheses didn't prove to be very successful. Nevertheless, she said she "really enjoyed the experience. It prepared me to do research in the real world."

And that's what she'll be doing come June 21, her first day on the job as a chemist in the FBI's Forensics Lab at Quantico. She'll be working with an explosives unit there.

Wright, who was offered the full-time job based on an internship she did there last summer, suspects her interest in forensics stems from being an avid reader of whodunit novels from a young age. "I loved reading crime novels as a child, Sherlock Holmes, works by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Martha Grimes, Elizabeth Peters," she rattled off, also sharing that her science goal as a child had been "to win the Nobel."

Today, Wright satisfies her thirst for reading with her mother and two sisters (all of whom are also Chi Omega sorority sisters), who have developed their own lending library. "My Mom buys books on the New York Times bestseller list and we take turns reading them," said Wright, whose older sister, Celeste, graduated from U.Va. last year and is currently the producer of the local affiliate's NBC 10 o'clock news. Her younger sister, Alice, is slated to graduate from U.Va. in 2012.

Along with her passion for reading, Wright loves words. The recent Phi Beta Kappa inductee subscribes to Webster's "Word of the Day" and keeps the ones that "really speak to me. Mostly because of their exotic sound for a relatively mundane meaning," she said, words like "pullulate, esemplastic, saxicolous and funicular," to name a few.

With her busy schedule, Wright doesn't have a lot of time for television, but she did confess that she loves forensic specialist Abby Sciuto's character on "NCIS." (Sciuto portrays a talented scientist whose dark wit matches her Goth style and eclectic tastes.) "My roommate suggested I be her for Halloween," Wright said.

She also participated on U.Va.'s club swim team her first and third years, and has been active in charity fundraising efforts through her sorority – including "Golf on Grounds," in which participants literally golf on Grounds to raise money for the Make A Wish Foundation. They received enough donations this year to grant two wishes, she said.

The 22-year-old has lived in Charlottesville her entire life. She loves her hometown and her soon-to-be alma mater, but she's excited to be moving to Washington, D.C.

"I want to be in the middle of everything," she said. "I've already promised my two roommates extensive tours of museums there."

Wright will decide in a few years the direction in which to take her life. In the meantime, the academic omnivore will not only be at the center of things in Washington, she plans to take a pilgrimage through Europe "to see all the cathedrals" and a cross-country road trip; to learn to ride a horse and fly a plane at some point in her life; and "to go to Rome to see firsthand every art work I've studied."

Whatever path she chooses, it's obvious she'll never lose her curiosity for learning and sharing with others that in which she finds wonder.

— By Rebecca Arrington