A passion for science

A passion for science

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Harvard-bound Paul Rothlauf discovered his love for research in a Rowan virology lab

Harvard or bust.

That was pretty much Paul Rothlauf’s mindset when he decided to apply to doctoral programs.

Oh, sure, he applied to a few of the nation’s finest schools—Princeton, Penn, Yale, Stanford, Hopkins, MIT, UC Berkley—and was admitted to many of them.

But having a “safety school” just wasn’t Rothlauf’s modus operandi.

“This specific virology program at Harvard is the best program in the entire world,” says Rothlauf. “How could you not strive for that? I said from the beginning, ‘No backup schools.’ I’ve always been a ‘go hard or go home’ kind of guy.”

That’s a big reason why Rothlauf—who accepted bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and biological sciences during the Commencement ceremony for Rowan University’s College of Science & Mathematics on Thursday, May 11—is bound for Boston in the fall.

Academically gifted, persistent, driven, and admittedly stubborn, Rothlauf paved his own way to Harvard University Medical School’s doctoral program in virology from almost the minute he stepped onto Rowan’s campus.

Being cut from the men’s basketball team his freshman year after being recruited turned out to be “a defining moment,” he says.

“I then got involved in campus clubs,” says Rothlauf. “I tested the Rowan waters. It helped me discover my passion for science.”

Studying viruses

His sophomore year, Rothlauf got word that Claude F. Krummenacher, a virologist, was leaving the University of Pennsylvania to become a professor of biological sciences and biomedical and translational sciences at Rowan.

Rothlauf tracked him down, anxious to work with him. Krummenacher, the lone virologist at Rowan, didn’t yet have a lab.

“I essentially pushed him off,” says Krummenacher. “I said, ‘Call me back in six months.’”

But, true to form, Rothlauf wasn’t having that.

“I told him, ‘I’ll help you start up a lab.’ I wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer. We hauled refrigerators from Penn to Rowan, Dr. K figured out where he wanted things, and we set up his lab,” Rothlauf recalls.

By that summer, Rothlauf was Krummenacher’s undergraduate research assistant in the college’s summer research program. He contributed to Krummenacher’s work in determining the significance of proteolipid protein in Herpes Simplex Virus-1 infection.

Moreover, Rothlauf, who had been wavering between a future as a researcher or physician, had found his calling: Viruses. Just hearing that word makes Rothlauf’s blue eyes light up.

“Viruses,” he repeats, shifting excitedly in his chair. “Coolest things in the world. We know so little about them. They make people sick, but you also can use them to make people healthy.”

‘A scientist’s Christmas’

At Harvard, where his studies will be fully funded, Rothlauf says he’ll have everything he needs—and the best education in virology in the world—to earn his doctorate as he sets off on his ultimate goal: to study viruses to help people.

“At Harvard, everything you need is right there. It seriously is a scientist’s Christmas,” says Rothlauf, who secured a coveted position in a residential summer research for undergraduates at Harvard last year through the Amgen Scholars program. 

The program gives undergraduates across the globe the chance to participate in cutting-edge research opportunities at world-class institutions. Rothlauf worked in the laboratory of Donald Coen in Harvard Medical School’s Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology.

Under the guidance of a postdoctoral fellow, he aided in the development of two assays that identify small molecule compounds that have the potential to treat human virus that affects people of all ages. The virus can be lethal to those who are immunocompromised. The assays employ biophysics, protein biochemistry and high screening technology to discover compounds that prevent viral infection.

The project advanced in a short period of time and Rothlauf was able to test discovered molecules on human cells.

The work demonstrated to him that admittance to the Harvard doctoral program was within reach. Every decision he made since then built upon that. Over winter break, Rothlauf returned to the Harvard lab, continuing the work in Coen’s lab—for free.

‘I have a passion for research and helping others through science’

“I slept on the couch of someone who worked in the lab,” he says. “My summer research experience gave me the confidence in my own research abilities to think outside the box and form my own ideas. We got to the point where my PI (principal investigator) gave me significant independent control of the project. He trusted me with testing our molecules on cells. It was an amazing, life-altering experience.

“I saw that if you have resources and funds and a good idea—a good idea you love—you can solve problems really fast,” Rothlauf continues. “With research, I love that you’re always solving puzzles, figuring things out. And what you find leads you to new things. I really want to see my ideas come to fruition.

“It’s my goal to study emerging infectious diseases. I find the emergence of a new virus that is poorly understood—yet holds deadly potential—riveting. I have a passion for research and helping others through science. It’s my goal to someday work with deadly viruses and develop vaccines or new therapeutics.”

To that end, earlier this academic year, Rothlauf applied for a grant to study influenza in the United Kingdom through the prestigious Fulbright Program. He was chosen as an alternate for the award, which is extraordinarily competitive, attracting the top students from the finest schools in the nation. Less than 2 percent of applicants are admitted to the program.

At one point this semester, Rothlauf was juggling multiple, high-profile interviews. That included flying to Stanford University for an interview a day early so that he would be settled enough for a Skype interview for the Fulbright scholarship.

“I spent from mid-January to the beginning of March with an interview every week or every other week,” he says. “I missed way too many developmental biology labs.”

Rothlauf has been emboldened, he says, by the Rowan professors who supported him and by his undergraduate experiences inside—and outside—the science classroom.

Expanding his scope of learning

A proud student in the Thomas N. Bantivoglio Honors Concentration, he was a BLAST (Bantivoglio Leadership and Service Training) mentor for two years, helping new students in the concentration become acclimated to the University. Honors courses, he explains, helped him gain a well-rounded education and gave him a better understanding of the world.

“What Honors gave me was the ability to take really diverse classes. That’s more important than people realize. I took history of photography, western civilization, children’s literature. It was good because, in those discussions, I got to see how other people think. It helped me expand my scope of learning and realize that the way I think is different from other people. I value that a lot,” Rothlauf says.

Rothlauf’s work with Krummenacher was presented nationally at the 35th American Society for Virology meeting last year in Virginia and the 40th International Herpesvirus Workshop in Idaho. While Rothlauf co-authored a paper in Virology with Krummenacher and presented at several local meetings, he still found time for involvement and volunteer work at Rowan.

He was secretary of Colleges Against Cancer, helping to plan Rowan’s Relay for Life event, was a small group leader for Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship, and volunteered to help the homeless, senior citizens and people with mental disabilities.

Secretary of Rowan’s chapter of MEDLIFE (Medicine, Education, and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere), he participated in a service trip to volunteer and build infrastructure in Moshi, Tanzania in January of 2016.

He nearly died after contracting typhoid fever.

“I lost 20 pounds in two days. I was very, very ill,” he says.

Still, the trip was extraordinary, Rothlauf adds.

“I had to learn Swahili. People would travel 10 miles by foot to the clinic where we worked. I worked in the pharmacy, in the tooth brushing station and in the education station. I even sat in with the doctors. The experience made me realize how our view of the world is so restricted,” he says.

Moving forward, Rothlauf’s brush with typhoid won’t find its way into his research.

“Typhoid,” he explains, “is bacterial.”

‘Decoding the intricacies of organisms and molecules’

Before heading to Harvard, Rothlauf, the recipient of Rowan’s Excellence in Biological Sciences Medallion, intends to do some middle school substitute science teaching in his hometown of Ringwood (Passaic County).

“I love science and the world needs more scientists. The place we can start is with children. When children see you excited about something, they’re excited, too. When you acquire skills and knowledge, you have to pass that on,” he says.

The son of a police officer and a teacher, Rothlauf at one point seriously thought about a career in law enforcement. But science won out. He credits his father with igniting his inquisitiveness and for leading him to scientific research, where “decoding the intricacies of organisms and molecules” was the perfect fit for Rothlauf.

“It would be so cool to develop an anti-viral vaccine,” says Rothlauf, who foresees a career “working on some scary viruses, creating vaccines and mentoring students.”

Rothlauf’s success at Rowan has set the bar for future students, Krummenacher says.

“Paul’s motivation and commitment to research show other students what it takes to do research. Our students can see what they can achieve and what doors can open to them,” Krummenacher says. “I’m very lucky to have had him to set the standard for Rowan undergraduate students who are following.”