A finish & a start
Valedictorian looks forward to continuing pursuits beyond Princeton
By Ruth Stevens
Princeton NJ -- When Peggy Ping Hsu handed in her molecular biology senior thesis this spring, she had mixed emotions. She experienced a sense of accomplishment, but also a feeling that the project was unfinished.
The same could be said for Hsu.
As valedictorian of Princeton's class of 2003, she has compiled an outstanding record, winning "practically every academic award we confer on an undergraduate," according to Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel. But there's much more to be done.
While Hsu speaks warmly of her time at Princeton, she bubbles with excitement about her future, which she hopes will include studying in Germany, completing an M.D./Ph.D. degree, seeing patients, conducting research, teaching classes and rearing a family.
"I'm motivated by this dream of doing everything I want to do," she said. "Many people think I'm too idealistic. But it's my idealism that makes me who I am."
Exploring different interests
In nominating Hsu for valedictorian, Professor Mark Rose, depart- mental representative in molecular biology, described her as "a modest, warm and remarkably mature presence who makes excellence appear graceful and easy."
Hsu came to Princeton in 1999 after graduating from Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa. She has won the President's Award for Academic Achievement, the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence, the Fresh- man First Honor Prize and, most recently, the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award for the undergraduate who has achieved the highest academic standing through the first three years at Princeton. As a junior, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
Hsu has achieved a grade point average well over 4.0, with grades of A+ in math, chemistry, physics and psychology as well as molecular biology. She already has taken graduate seminars in molecular biology and computer science. And she has completed 300-level classes in history, English, Italian and Chinese.
"There were one or two semesters where I took more science courses," she said. "While I was completely immersed in science, I felt like something was missing. This year, I took almost all humanities courses because it was my last chance to learn these books with these professors."
While she has interests in many areas, Hsu knew she wanted to be a doctor from a young age. She started out thinking she might major in chemical engineering -- her father, James Hsu, is a chemical engineering professor at Lehigh University. But she soon settled on molecular biology.
"It was just amazing that we could study how living things work and that we could really understand what was going on, whereas in the past we couldn't really," she said, noting the great progress in the field of genomics.
In the summer of 2001, she began working in the lab of Professor James Broach. "His research really interested me," Hsu said. "But what made me choose his lab ultimately was my conversation with him -- I just really liked talking to him and being in his lab. People were so friendly and knowledgeable, and they really took an interest in me as a person and as a budding scientist."
Hsu has been studying how yeast cells "wake up" -- how they emerge from a quiescent state and begin to grow. "This is an important problem, since most cells in our body exist in this quiescent state and the first stage in conversion from a normal to a cancerous state is heeding a 'wake-up' call," Broach said.
Hsu used state-of-the-art genomic tools to probe what it takes to wake up cells. In fact, it was the first time this particular experimental setup had been used at Princeton. At the same time she was working in the lab, Hsu was interviewing for M.D./Ph.D. programs at many of the major research universities in the country. She took the opportunity to discuss her work with scientists who were involved in similar experiments and learned more about the technology.
"It was really amazing how they were interested in what I was doing and I was interested in what they were doing, and we could share information," she said.
Broach said that both Hsu's junior paper and her senior thesis are of publishable quality. "Her thesis is a model of creativity and scholarship," he said, "but more importantly, Peggy seems much more interested in solving the scientific problem and in learning the results of the experiments than in the nature of the thesis itself. I find her to be much more a colleague than a student."
This summer, Hsu plans to spend some time at home with her family, which also includes her mother, Shuyu, and her brother, Allen, a member of Princeton's class of 2006. Next year, she will continue to conduct research in cell biology under a Fulbright grant at the new Max Planck Institute in Dresden, Germany. She has been accepted into the joint M.D./Ph.D. program offered by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the following year. Then she intends to pursue a career in academic medicine.
"Many M.D./Ph.D.s have this ideal in their mind and don't reach it -- I hope I can," she said. "You see patients, and from your interactions with patients, you develop questions that you want to answer in the lab. Then you can bring the [lab research] back to the patient and develop some sort of therapy or at least a better understanding of the disease such that you can treat it."
Editing, coordinating and 'being silly'
Outside of the classroom, Hsu has been co-editor-in-chief of the Princeton Journal of Bioethics, the oldest undergraduate bioethics journal in the country. She also has served as coordinator of the on-campus American Sign Language classes, coordinator for the Student Volunteers Council's Katzenbach School for the Deaf tutoring project and peer health educator at the University Counseling Center.
She has been a member of the Brown Co-operative since 2001. The co-op, an alternative eating establishment in Brown Hall, is made up of 25 juniors and seniors who cook and eat together every day. In addition to teaching her how to prepare a meal for a large group and how to compost, the co-op has provided her with an intimate circle of friends.
Having to work closely with a group of people every day forces one to look beyond small differences, Hsu said. "In this kind of community, we almost by necessity have to learn to love people around us," she said. "Soon you just realize that you don't notice the flaws that you originally saw in these people. You see all the wonderful things about them and what makes them special."
Undoubtedly, her fellow students have seen the same in her. While she's every bit a serious student, she also smiles often and tells comical stories about everything from trying to tutor a hearing-impaired student in math without being fully up-to-speed in sign language to buying half of a free-range cow for the co-op.
Her list of "selected activities" on her resume includes, besides the aforementioned extracurricular activities, such items as "Being silly (1981-2003)" and "Coming up with crazy ideas (1984-2003)."
"My resume seemed so dry," she said, "that I updated it because I think being silly is as important as anything else."
As she works on her speech for the June 3 commencement, Hsu looks back on her time at Princeton with fondness.
"It's been a really good four years -- I'm actually quite sad to leave," she said. "Every day I think about how amazing the people are. I've learned from my peers and my professors -- they've all been really accessible and care about me and how much I'm learning and the kind of person I'm developing into. I'm just really glad I came to Princeton."
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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Steven Schultz
Contributing writers: Patricia Allen, Karin Dienst, Eric Quinones, Joseph Seldner
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor, Margaret Westergaard
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett