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'Tennenacity' Valedictorian demonstrates her distinctive brand of persistence

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Senior Ruth Tennen was ecstatic to hand in her thesis. As she walked out of the molecular biology laboratory where she had spent so many nights and weekends, she thought, "This is great. No more lab for four months." But two days later, Tennen was back, sneaking in so that no one would notice her.

Valedictorian Ruth Tennen

Valedictorian Ruth Tennen examines a DNA sequencing gel used in a molecular biology class at the Lewis Thomas Laboratory, where she has put in many hours working on her thesis. She refers to lab work as "fun," an attitude that should serve her well when she heads to Stanford University's Ph.D. program in cancer biology this fall.

"I didn't want people to see me in there because I thought they'd think that it was kind of bizarre," explained Tennen, who has been running experiments related to her thesis.

Tennen, who will deliver an address at the June 1 Commencement as valedictorian of the senior class, is the kind of student who pursues answers long after the grades are turned in.

"Beyond academic achievements, Ruth is truly and sincerely dedicated to scientific research," said professor Mark Rose, director of undergraduate studies for the molecular biology department. "She is a true lab rat, always here, always enthusiastic. She is a promising researcher who will undoubtedly be making important contributions in the future."

Aside from her academic record -- 21 A+'s in 11 departments and programs, no grade below an A -- Tennen stands out for her intellectual curiosity, her scrupulous preparation and her tenacity, say her professors. She also is the kind of person who refers to lab work as "fun," an important trait for someone heading to Stanford University's Ph.D. program in cancer biology this fall.

She is "one of those people whom one feels privileged, if inadequate, to teach," said Maitland Jones Jr., the David Jones Professor of Chemistry. Tennen was awarded the George Wood Legacy Prize, given to the student with the most exceptional academic achievement, in her sophomore and junior years. She also won the Harold T. Shapiro Prize for Academic Achievement in 2001 and 2002, as well as the Freshman First Honor Prize. She was named the recipient of a Barry Goldwater Scholarship in 2003.

Tennen arrived at Princeton eager to explore different disciplines, although she already had published her first scholarly paper, on bacterial spores, in the Journal of Applied Microbiology. She signed up for courses in math, chemistry, English and Near Eastern studies her first semester.

"I was trying to find something that sparked my interest," she said. "And I loved all of them, which was sort of a problem in picking a major." Despite feeling intimidated by the molecular biology department, she tried a course there and found her home. She relishes molecular biology's potential to solve problems.

"I'm the kind of person who likes to look at problems that have concrete answers," she said. "So even if I'm not the one who's going to come up with the answer, even if I'm just a little piece along the way, I really love it."

Tennen signed up for organic chemistry and adored that class too, despite the fact that she considered it the hardest class she had ever taken. Jones, who taught the class, said hers was the best academic performance he had seen in the course in more than 20 years.

"Orgo forced me to think about problems in ways I wasn't used to," Tennen said. "Professor Jones really emphasized group problem solving, so we learned to talk to each other rather than getting everything from the book."

Tennen went on to serve as a teaching assistant in that course, even though she was not a chemistry major. The experience helped her decide that if she chooses a career as a researcher, she would like to teach as well.

A different kind of mentoring experience also helped to spark Tennen's interest in teaching: She spent several months this fall going to a local elementary school to read to children as part of the Student Volunteers Council's "Read and Lead" program. "Dealing with organic chemistry students and dealing with squirmy 5-year-old kids are totally different, but I loved both experiences," she said.

Groundbreaking research

For her thesis, Tennen studied a gene in yeast that causes colon cancer in humans when it is mutated. The gene, MSH2, serves as part of what is known as the DNA mismatch repair machinery. Humans that have a defective gene in DNA mismatch repair have a 90 percent chance of getting cancer before the age of 50.

"Very little was known about the regulation of these genes before Ruth's thesis work," said Alison Gammie, a lecturer in the molecular biology department who served as Tennen's thesis adviser. "Ruth has made a novel and significant contribution to our understanding of the regulation of MSH2, using yeast as a model system. Ruth's exciting and thorough thesis work will ultimately appear in a scientific publication, with Ruth as the primary author."

Tennen, exhibiting her trademark modesty, gently disagreed with that assessment. "I feel like my thesis still needs a lot of work," she said.

She won't be working on it this summer, though. Tennen plans to take the summer off to spend time with her family in Collinsville, Conn., and prepare for her move to California in the fall. She chose the cancer biology program at Stanford for its flexibility -- though the weather may have tipped the scales toward Stanford just a little, she said.

"At this point I have no idea what area of science I want to go into," Tennen said. "In this program, you can veer off into virology or genetics or biochemistry if your interests take you there."

For now, she has a different kind of challenge lined up: learning the guitar this summer. Tennen already plays the clarinet -- she has been in the University Wind Ensemble for the last four years and currently is principal clarinetist -- but a music composition class whet her appetite for something new. "We'll see how musically inclined I am beyond the clarinet," she said.

Tennen plans to take a break from science this summer, but it is hard to picture her staying out of the lab for three months. She confessed to having a standing offer from a University of Connecticut professor in whose lab she has worked during past summers "to pop in if I need to get my hands wet a little bit. I think I can pry myself away for a few months. We'll see."