Michael Gormally PO ‘11 recently received one of 14 prestigious Churchill Scholarships to study at the University of Cambridge for one year. The scholarship, awarded to graduating seniors based on academic excellence, extraordinary talent, and exceptional individual qualities, includes tuition and all fees (approximately $25,500-$28,000 for the year), as well as a living and travel allowance.
Gormally applied for the Churchill Scholarship and for admission to Cambridge in October. As one of two candidates nominated by Pomona, he was called back for a final round of interviews around Christmas and notified that he had received the scholarship during the second week of January.
Recalling his reaction upon hearing the good news, Gormally said, “It was a really good feeling, because there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities for fully-funded fellowships for people from the United States to go to school in England.”
While at Cambridge, he will join the research team of Trinity College Professor Shankar Balasubramanian to study different ways that DNA can fold, or, as Gormally put it, “different conformations that DNA can exist in instead of its normal helical shape.” According to Gormally, these alternate structures of DNA are important for proper regulation of cell replication.
Though the Churchill Scholarship lasts only a year, Gormally plans to remain in Cambridge for four years instead of just one. He will spend his first year completing a M.Phil in Chemistry and then apply to the NIH Graduate Partnership program for additional funding to pursue a Ph.D. Although he is uncertain about his future after Cambridge, he said he feels that his experience studying and conducting research there with some of the top minds in his field will steer him in the right direction for the rest of his life.
Gormally said he believes that his training at Pomona has prepared him well for his research at Cambridge. Because his background is based more in physical chemistry than biochemistry, he feels will be able to contribute new ideas to the team and bring a different perspective to the research.
In addition to enabling Gormally to pursue his passion for chemistry, the research he will conduct at Cambridge is personally important to him because it may contribute to finding a potential cure for cancer.
“It would be interesting to apply what I do to a relevant medical or technological application,” Gormally said. “I think that is what excites me about the work in Cambridge.”
Originally from Mountain Lakes, a small town in north eastern New Jersey, Gormally said he has long had an affinity for science. But he fell in love with chemistry after taking an introductory course with Pomona chemistry professor Malkiat Johal, who is also his academic advisor. Enthused about Pomona’s chemistry department and faculty, Gormally decided to spend two summers conducting research with Johal. Gormally said his summer research “got [him] excited about research and inspired [him] to go to grad school.”
Gormally also credits Johal himself for spurring his interest in attending Cambridge, especially because Johal received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from there as well. Johal said that his relationship with Gormally is based on mutual respect, noting that Gormally’s strong foundation in laboratory experience and clinical work, coupled with his eagerness to learn, make Gormally a “superb scientist” and undoubtedly one of the best students he has ever had.
“I would describe our relationship as pretty laid back but professional—we take the research very seriously, and so candid and open discussion is very important,” Johal said. “I treat Mike as an equal in terms of scientific input—this comes after three years of working with him in my laboratory.”
The majority of Gormally’s work at Pomona, which has resulted in three co-authored papers in the journals Nanotech and Langmuir, centers on studying thin films with QCM and DPI, two highly sensitive measurement tools. The instruments Gormally uses are hypersensitive scales that “weigh” thin films that he builds on their surface. Besides giving the mass of the given film that one is working with, the QCM (quartz crystal microbalance) and DPI (dual beam polarization interferometer) also perform data manipulation to report on other parameters of the film like thickness or rigidity. Gormally said he finds the films interesting to study because they can be used for designing anything from an implantable medical device to a simulated cell membrane for studying molecular interactions. One application of QCM is to monitor how a thin polymer film responds to high-energy ultraviolet light. Materials like polymer films tend to oxidize under energetic light and degrade over time. This is especially important for the design of photovoltaic (solar) cells, for example, where polymer films are often used to collect light energy and must withstand intense solar radiation. Gormally used QCM to explore both the functional lifetime of the films and the potential mechanism of their destruction.
When not focusing on academics, Gormally finds time to pursue other interests, including his main on-campus activity—water polo. Starting when he was fifteen, Gormally played on his high school team and continued with Pomona’s varsity team. Off-campus, Gormally has a passion for mountaineering and has led clients on climbs in the U.S., Europe, and Bolivia. Last spring, he successfully scaled Illimani, a 21,201 ft. mountain in western Bolivia, on his third attempt after months of careful planning. The moment he reached the summit was “an indescribable mixture of accomplishment, joy, and exhilaration.” Having also frequented the Alps, Gormally hopes that being in the UK will provide him the extra perk of being able to travel around Europe more easily and climb other mountains.