At the Interface of Work and Play

Winter 2005

As study buddies and roomies, three PhD students have become phenomenal friends.

Any other time, it would be the beginning of a bad joke. What do Mrs. Claus, Army Barbie, and a biker chick have in common? If you’re Meredith Bauman, Susan Napier, and Melissa Travers—good friends, PhD students, and decked out in those Halloween costumes—the answer is a lot, actually.

In fall 2003, when Bauman, Napier, and Travers entered the Whiting School of Engineering, they comprised half of the PhD candidates admitted to Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. The list of similarities goes on from there. All three majored in chemical engineering as undergraduates. They are all smart, articulate, kind, and enthusiastic 23-year-olds who plan to graduate in 2008. (Bauman’s energy level alone could generate enough power for the Homewood campus.) They love to play the board game Cranium, teaming up to beat (usually) their male friends and significant others. Hailing from very different states— Bauman’s home is Neptune, New Jersey; Travers comes from Fayetteville, North Carolina; and Napier’s hometown is Oceanside, California— they love exploring Baltimore together.

Like many friendships, circumstances brought them together. They met during an admitted applicant weekend sponsored by Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in April 2003, and hung out together. Bauman and Travers were assigned as roommates for the weekend. “We were both really excited about Hopkins and had a lot of fun that weekend,” recalls Travers. “We decided that if we came here, we should try to live together. Then we found out that Susan was enrolling, so we asked her if she’d like to live with us.”

They chose a bright apartment across from the Peabody Institute in Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon neighborhood, a location they selected for its proximity to the Inner Harbor and the Johns Hopkins shuttle. The overall interior design is Early Graduate Student: well-worn sofas, neglected plants on the patio, and very little on the walls. (Travers took her museum shop prints with her this year when she moved to another apartment.) She admits, “I am still here all the time.” Bauman laughs as she surveys piles of catalogs and books. “We’re not that neat,” she says. “Our apartment usually looks like boys live here.” Napier interjects: “Well, clean boys, anyway.”

Early on, they discovered that what seemed natural to them was actually quite unusual in the graduate program. “Out of six incoming students, three of us were women,” explains Napier. “The fact that we all lived together was even more unique.” If graduate students do live together, says Travers, it’s often out of convenience or because they’re in the same lab group. “We were drawn to each other and became friends,” she adds.

“These three women … are some of our top students academically but they also have taken the time to make sure the department has a positive social atmosphere as well.” Michael J. Betenbaugh

Says Michael J. Betenbaugh, professor and chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering,“These three women bring an amazing amount of positive energy to our department, both in their interests for the department as a whole and in their dedication and support of each other. They are some of our top students academically but they also have taken the time to make sure the department has a positive social atmosphere as well.”

Case in point: the department’s first-ever Halloween bash in October 2003. The department had sponsored a friendly competition among the graduate students for the best departmental happy hour. The three friends didn’t hesitate when it came to choosing the party they wanted to host. “We got hay bales at a pumpkin farm and trucked them back in my car,” Bauman recalls. “We bought dry ice in little cauldrons and made everyone dress up.” Bauman went as Mrs. Claus, Napier as Army Barbie, and Travers as a biker chick. Napier adds, “People told us that it was the best party they had ever been to at Johns Hopkins.” They won the competition, with the prize being one of their favorite activities: going out to lunch, this time with the department. They have assumed other leader- ship roles as well. Bauman was honored last fall as one of the first two Schwarz Instructors in Undergraduate Chemical Engineering Laboratory, and Napier is the 2004-05 student representative to the Whiting School’s Graduate Committee.

While they definitely heed the warning of “all work and no play,” their friendship plays a pivotal role in their work. “Our first year, we were all taking the same core classes and all three of us would stick together,” says Bauman, who graduated from the University of Virginia. Travers, a North Carolina State University grad, agrees: “When something was really, really hard, we worked together and made sure everyone understood.” Napier also went to college in her home state, studying chemical engineering with an emphasis on bioengineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I thought graduate school would be more about setting yourself apart,” says Napier. “But I’ve learned that using your friends as resources is much better than doing it all by yourself.”

This approach was particularly helpful when all three took Michael E. Paulaitis’s “Advanced Thermodynamics” course their first semester. “We had a hard project on programming,” recalls Bauman. “So we all put in our limited knowledge and combined it,” and did quite well.

Paulaitis, professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and of Biophysics, praises their intellectual tenacity. “The three of them typically dominated [class] discussions,” he says. “Although they have very different personalities as students, they were competitive and always projected their individual ideas and opinions in class, regardless of what the other two thought. The friendship is special, though. I think it’s a combination of their scholarly abilities and just being nice, enjoyable people to be around.”

Three Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering doctoral students—(from left) Meredith Bauman, Melissa Travers, and Susan Napier—quickly bonded after their first meeting, at the department’s admitted applicant weekend.
Three Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering doctoral students—(from left) Meredith Bauman, Melissa Travers, and Susan Napier—quickly bonded after their first meeting, at the department’s admitted applicant weekend.

The three roommates excelled last spring in the oral qualifying examinations, thanks to each other’s help, snack food, and a large dry erase board. To master the material in several textbooks, they set up mock oral exams in their dining room. A critical component of the exam is the student’s ability to explain an answer, something their unorthodox study method addressed. “While Melissa was eating her peanut butter, I’d ask her questions,” says Napier. “She would practice her answer on the board and present the problem to me and Meredith.” Napier notes that each of them had meltdowns during that period. Bauman’s sense of humor helped. “I’d say to them, ‘It’s 5 a.m. and we’re still awake, so let’s have cookies,” she laughs.

They decided not to confer with each other when choosing a lab group for the duration of their doctoral studies. “We didn’t want to sway decisions one way or the other,” says Bauman. “We ended up not having the same first choice at all.” Napier joined associate professor Konstantinos Konstantopoulos’s lab group and researches cell adhesion molecules involved in cancer metastasis to create more effective drug therapies and cancer detection technologies. Post-Hopkins, she plans to continue in biomolecular engineering. In professor Denis Wirtz’s lab group, Travers investigates cell adhesion molecules on the single-molecule level using live cells. Her future plans include becoming a professor or a researcher in industry or government.

“The fact that we’re doing different things now is helpful,” explains Bauman. Her lab group with Betenbaugh attempts to engineer cells by altering their DNA and expressed proteins to try to prevent programmed cell death. “If I don’t know how to start something in lab, and I’m telling Susan, she’ll say ‘Oh, we do that every day in our lab.’ They have equipment that I can use and because of our friendship, I don’t feel bad asking a favor.” After earning her doctorate, Bauman plans to head south and work as a researcher or head a biotech or pharmaceutical company laboratory.

Once a week, the three students head to a favorite lunch spot or find a new one. “We always see each other, even with me living in a different apartment,” says Travers, adding, “If I wasn’t getting married, I would still be living with Susan and Meredith.” Adds Bauman, “People didn’t believe that we would still be such close friends once we got to different labs.” Yet despite their different schedules, labs, and advisers, the bonds of their friendship remain strong.