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Natural chemistry: From meeting in an undergraduate lab to pursuing PhDs together

How IU Northwest brought two researchers together, set them up for success at the University of Chicago

Feb 14, 2024
Aidan McCambridge (left) and Carol Dilts (right) met in an undergraduate lab at IU Northwest and are now pursuing their PhDs together at ...
Aidan McCambridge (left) and Carol Dilts (right) met in an undergraduate lab at IU Northwest and are now pursuing their PhDs together at the University of Chicago.

Aidan McCambridge was working in a lab led by Associate Professor of Biology, Ming Gao, during the winter of 2018, midway through the final year of his undergraduate studies at Indiana University Northwest.

Gao told McCambridge, a biology major and chemistry minor, that there was going to be a new lab member, her name was Carol.

McCambridge envisioned who this new lab member could be. Carol Dilts, a freshman — also studying biology with a chemistry minor — was not who he had in mind.

The two spent several hours a day in the biology lab together, McCambridge mentoring Dilts. About a year after they met, they started dating and have been together ever since.

“After becoming very good friends, the following fall we decided to start dating,” Dilts said. “The rest has been history.”

Life since then has been pretty much the same for the two lab lovebirds. McCambridge graduated from IU Northwest in 2019 and Dilts in 2022. Both are now at The University of Chicago on the path to acquiring their PhDs.

But none of this would’ve happened — their acceptance into a highly competitive PhD program or their relationship — had it not been for IU Northwest.

The proximity, affordability and flexibility of IU Northwest

McCambridge, from St. John, and Dilts, from Gary, both grew up in Northwest Indiana. The proximity and financial support available brought them both to the campus.

McCambridge said he felt at home right away.

“I was able to interact with students before I even applied,” McCambridge said. “It was a very friendly and engaging environment. I felt very secure going there, and I left with probably more than I would have wished to get.”

Dilts, who at the time was working professionally as a ballet dancer and instructor in Chicago, said the flexibility of the classes made it a no-brainer.

“The big draw is that I was able to work full-time,” Dilts said. “… I could take classes over the summer so I could still work full-time and keep my job and other aspirations.”

Before long, the campus became a second home for each of them. Arriving as early as 4 a.m. and leaving as late as 11 p.m., the pair could be found in the lab whenever they weren’t attending their classes, working elsewhere on campus or participating in other extracurricular activities.

“We basically lived there,” Dilts said.

“Having Carol there made it even more enjoyable to work in the lab,” McCambridge added.

Even after choosing to pursue their bachelor’s degrees at IU Northwest, neither could’ve imagined how much their undergraduate education would set them up for future success.

A unique research environment

Most research institutions can’t offer what IU Northwest does for its students.

At larger universities, you might have to wait until your junior or senior year to join a research lab as an undergraduate. Even then, Dilts said sometimes you’d be lucky to fight for a spot to be a “dishwasher.” At these institutions, research labs are shared with undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, doctoral students, staff scientists and technicians.

Not at IU Northwest.

Here, the biology and chemistry research labs are almost entirely run by undergraduates. Students, as early as their first year, are working on their own projects, with opportunities to present their work at national conferences alongside graduate and doctoral students from other institutions.

“At IUN, it’s the undergrads running the show,” Dilts said. “It puts a lot of responsibility on you from day one, which can be intimidating, but it also gives you opportunities.”

McCambridge added: “At larger institutions, more professors perform research since it’s a larger campus than IUN. However, there’s a significantly higher number of students, which increases the competition for opportunities.”

In Gao’s lab, Dilts and McCambridge worked with Me31B, a protein found in Drosophila — the common fruit fly. A related protein is found in humans and is necessary for proper development. Their projects used a variety of genetic and biochemical techniques to characterize how Me31B functions.

If they had a question, observation or anything else on their mind, they could walk into Gao’s or one of their other professors’ offices to get guidance. That kind of personalized, side-by-side collaboration is harder to find at larger institutions.

Both decided to stay at IU Northwest, even after graduating.

McCambridge worked for two years as a lab technician, teaching assistant and lab instructor for the genetics and molecular biology courses before eventually pursuing his PhD. During her gap year, Dilts worked as a tutor, supplemental instructor, lab technician and an introductory biology lab instructor.

Thanks to IU Northwest, the two fell in love with research, cementing the goal to pursue their PhDs, an opportunity that was made possible through their hands-on experiences at the Northwest campus. They thanked Dr. Gao, the Biology Department Chair Dr. Harold Olivey, the entire Biology and Chemistry Departments, the Academic Success and Achievement Program, their former lab mates and more.

“I know Aidan can say the same thing, but I would not be here without them,” Dilts said.

Learn more about IU Northwest’s biology department

Pursuing a doctoral future together

Like their time at IU Northwest, McCambridge is a little further along in his PhD program than Dilts, who began in the fall of 2023.

After a year of intensive courses and lab rotations, McCambridge joined Dr. David Kovar’s lab, which researches actin cytoskeleton self-organization and how the cells build different structures to perform various functions. He’s one of 10 working under Principal Investigator David Kovar.

McCambridge is still in the process of figuring out if he eventually wants to stay in academia or find another role.

Dilts credits IU Northwest — particularly Gao’s lab — for showing her that she loved research. She’s bouncing around the idea of becoming a research professor and running her own lab or getting a job investigating treatment for those with developmental disorders.

Professionally, they’re still figuring out their future. But they’re both ready to tackle whatever is next, together.

“I don’t know where I would be without him as my support system,” Dilts said. “… it’s really nice to have the support of somebody who’s not only in the same field as you, but who just cares about you at the end of the day.”

“I would say my life would be incomplete without her,” McCambridge said.

Find a program you’ll love (and maybe even a person) here. Learn more

 

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