Margarete Diaz Cuadros, CC '14, tickles worms. And she loves it.
“We tickle worms all day long,” a grinning Diaz Cuadros said of her research with Martin Chalfie, Nobel Prize winner and University professor of biology. “I study how axons grow on neurons and how they are guided.”
Diaz Cuadros, a biochemistry major with a 4.0523 GPA, was named the class of 2014 valedictorian on Monday morning. Samuel Walker, a comparative literature and society major with a concentration in philosophy, was named the class of 2014 salutatorian. Walker was unavailable for comment on Monday.
This worm research, which she said was one of her favorite experiences at Columbia, has become so much a part of her life that she even dreams about it.
“I actually once had a dream that my worms were life-sized and they wanted to hug me,” Diaz Cuadros said, laughing. “That really freaked me out, so it's good that they are tiny. I didn't want to hug them.”
Diaz Cuadros grew up in Lima, Peru, and chose Columbia because of the available opportunities to pursue research. When she arrived in New York, she quickly became interested in evolutionary biology, the concentration of her biochemistry degree.
“I did come for a visit at Days on Campus and it was just a really exciting atmosphere,” Diaz Cuadros said. “The diversity really caught my attention, so I guess it was that,” she said.
She received funding to pursue research in Chalfie's lab from the Columbia College Alumni and Parent Internship Fund.
In addition to her lab work, Diaz Cuadros said that a seminar taught by Jill Shapiro—a senior lecturer in ecology, evolution, and environmental biology—about Neanderthals was a highlight of her Columbia experience.
“It was really just awesome to get a chance to look at those issues of human evolution,” Diaz Cuadros said. “That professor is unbelievable, she is so invested in her students. It was a chance to have a one-on-one interaction with the professor in every single class which you don't really get in the science department.”
The faculty committee that announced Diaz Cuadros as valedictorian praised her on Monday.
“Margarete has impressed Columbia and national faculty with her commitment to research, her creative thinking which allows her to identify details others might miss, and her phenomenal work ethic—all of which, combined with her gracious, generous, and humble character, point to her becoming a leading scientist of her generation,” the committee said in a statement.
Diaz Cuadros said that she is definitely striving for the “leading scientist” title. She said that she will continue her work in Chalfie's lab.
“I've been doing a genetics screen,” she said, which “generates mutants and you look for animals that have a defect that you are interested in. So I just have a collection that I want to look at. I want to figure out what is the gene that has been affected in those mutant strains.”
After her time at Columbia is over, she hopes to apply to a Ph.D. program outside of New York, but still in the United States. She said that she wants to try somewhere new with more funding than is available in Peru.
“The dream is to become a professor, get tenure, and have my own academic research lab. But being realistic and given the state of funding right now for research, I know that's a far-fetched dream,” Diaz Cuadros said. I still hope that circumstances will change.”
As for the title of valedictorian, Diaz Cuadros said that she is humbled by it. Although she was initially confused by how she was notified: an email from Columbia College Dean James Valentini.
“You know how he usually sends emails to the whole community? I honestly ignore them sometimes. I thought it was something I wouldn't think about. It took me a while to realize, Oh this is actually for me personally!'” she said.
Overall, Diaz Cuadros said that the title recognizes more than just her academic record.
“It's a chance to show the people that have helped me over these four years that their trust in me was worth it. I think it's a great way to say thank you, and not only to my mentors,” Diaz Cuadros said. “To other students, to everyone, from my RA, to my TA, to everyone who has helped.”
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