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Enzymes and ambitions

Biochemist, 22, already making contributions

BRAINTREE -- As she wraps up an impressive undergraduate career at Boston College, 22 year-old biochemist Elizabeth O'Day is looking ahead to a year of study at Cambridge University in England, where she will research possible cures for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease -- ''a lofty one-year goal," she acknowledges.

While that might seem like scientific bravado from an undergraduate, O'Day's accomplishments suggest otherwise.

The Braintree native has, with her research and many scientific awards, already established herself as someone poised to make a contribution in her field. Let others debate the role of women in science; she's ready to get down to work.

After her year in England, where she will complete her master's degree in chemistry, she will return to the United States next summer and begin work on a doctorate in chemical biology at Harvard, all paid for through a National Science Foundation research fellowship.

O'Day was afforded the rare opportunity of doing graduate-level research from the time she was a sophomore at Boston College.

''I had been just randomly assigned Dr. Evan Kantrowitz as my faculty adviser," O'Day said. ''He asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I said I was interested in research, that I wanted to cure cancer and I wanted to cure AIDS. He asked me, 'How are you going to do that?' and I told him I was interested in how small molecules fit into the active site of enzymes. His face lit up."

Kantrowitz was about to begin his own research project into cancer cures so he took on O'Day to assist, and she worked for him for the next three years.

That often meant going in to the lab early in the morning and staying there ''until all hours of the night," depending on ''what reactions you're doing," O'Day said.

O'Day said her undergraduate research has focused on developing inhibitor molecules to combat the spread of cancer cells. There have even been times when Kantrowitz and his assistants came up with candidates for cures that were promising enough to forward to the National Cancer Institute for further testing.

''Not many students have had as much freedom as BC allows," O'Day said. ''You could run wild on a project. It has given me a great chance to develop my skill as a scientist."

Kantrowitz said O'Day was certainly up to the task she set.

''She came in and had a burning desire to get into research," Kantrowitz recalled. ''We started a project together, and she's done a spectacular job. She thinks much more independently than most undergraduates."

In her sophomore year, O'Day won the Beckman Foundation scholarship, which provided her with a stipend for research and the opportunity to present her results in California. As a junior, O'Day won the Barry Goldwater fellowship, which she put toward her tuition at BC. That same year, she was selected to present her research at the Euroregionale Conference of the American Chemical Society German Exchange Program in Berlin. She has now added to her honors the Winston Churchill Scholarship, which will pay for her master's degree next year, and the National Science Foundation research fellowship, which will provide her with $50,000 a year while she completes her doctorate at Harvard.

O'Day was also in line for a Fulbright grant to study in India next year. She withdrew before the selection process was complete, after deciding she would take the opportunity to study at Cambridge University.

While O'Day has always had a keen interest in science, she believes her older brother's successful battle against a rare form of childhood cancer contributed -- at least ''on some unconscious level" -- to her focus on scientific research.

O'Day's father, Robert, said she not only was at the top of her class and was president of her high school class, but was on Braintree High's varsity soccer team all four years.

''Some people go so deep into something, they become almost one dimensional," he said. ''But Liz is extremely well-rounded. I think the secret to her success is she is very methodical, and has a good sense of self-discipline and self-confidence."

Science remains a male-dominated field, and that held true at Boston College. O'Day said the 40 students who were selected for the two-year honors program in her freshman year were evenly divided between boys and girls. At the end of two years, only three girls remained, she said.

In an effort to encourage young women to pursue careers in science, O'Day, in her senior year, implemented a monthlong program for high school girls at Boston College, called Women in Science and Technology. Students from Braintree High School, Trinity Catholic High School, and Fontbonne Academy in Milton spent four consecutive Saturdays in February doing research in BC labs with undergraduate volunteers O'Day had recruited. The students also went on field trips and listened to female speakers who had made science their specialty.

''Liz is the terrific sort of student you see once in a decade," said Boston College chemistry professor Mary Roberts, who acted as O'Day's faculty adviser for the Women in Science program. ''She's full of energy and has a great mind. She made that program happen."

O'Day said that her four years at Boston College have been busy, but that she has still made time for friends. ''I think it's made my group closer," she said. ''We really enjoy the time we have together."

O'Day also made time to play on the college rugby team. Her performance as fullback earned her the nickname of ''The Brick Wall."

''The fullback is the last line of defense," said the 5-foot-2 O'Day. ''The whole purpose is to knock people down, and that's what I did. I think growing up with two brothers helped me."

Christine Wallgren can be reached at CLWallgren@aol.com.

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