Scientist of the Week: Dan Hertel

April West

Dan Hertel, a junior biology major, is currently on a pre-med track. He spent this past summer in Cuzco, Peru working in a rehabilitation clinic for kids with mental and physical disabilities. Children were at this clinic — which received no government funding — for issues ranging from toddlers with cerebral palsy to seven- or eight-year-olds with Down syndrome to teenagers with physical disabilities.Hertel spent part of his time in the hospital alongside a doctor, learning by volunteering in a wing of the clinic that housed children with developmental disabilities.

“I didn’t work with sick kids as you typically imagine in a children’s hospital. There was no emergency or operation care. I played with the children, fed them, brushed their teeth, helped them get ready for bed, et cetera. Some were extremely happy just to have me push them around in their wheelchairs,” Hertel explained.

The hospital differed from American hospitals in that patient turnout was more of a priority. “The care was not as personal and professional, but many, many people came and they accommodated all of them,” he said.

“Nurses would bring the doctors information on the next couple patients while they are still with a different patient.” He added that they didn’t have many of the supplies that we take for granted, such as rubber gloves for examinations.

At this point, Hertel hopes to later work in pediatrics and is open to the idea of working in an underprivileged setting similar to the one in which he worked in Peru. “Working with the kids in Peru was extremely fulfilling and I learned many different strategies for working with different types of people. I want to work in pediatrics because I want every child to have as great a chance to survive and prosper as any other,” he said.

Along with taking Spanish classes and volunteering in the children’s clinic, Hertel also partook in cultural awareness activities such as cooking, painting, and salsa dancing lessons as part of his program. “My experiences in Peru helped to put into perspective why I am doing what I am doing and where science is taking me,” he explained.

Hertel is currently taking a tutorial, entitled “Science in Human Values,” with biology professor Nicholas Maravolo. He is studying the roles of religion and spirituality in the world and how they do or do not co-exist with science. It is a one-on-one course in which they read and discuss readings from books.

“It is one of the most intellectually and spiritually fulfilling classes I have ever taken,” Hertel added. A few of the books he has read this term are “Why Religion Matters” by Huston Smith and “The Arrogance of Humanism” by David Ehrenfeld.

Hertel is also currently designing his future honors project that he will begin this summer and carry on into his senior year. In this project he will study “programmed cell death,” which is a type of cell death where the cell uses cellular mechanisms to kill itself, which allows for control of the cell number and also eliminates cells that threaten the animal’s survival.

Cancer is the breakdown of programmed cell death. Hertel will look at programmed cell death in conjunction with “signal transduction cascades,” which are involved in many diseases and refer to any process where a cell converts one kind of stimulus into another.

Hertel will work with plant cells in his research that will be applicable to all cells. As part of his summer research, he will attend a biochemistry conference in Mexico with Professor Maravolo and several other students.

Science has always been Hertel ‘s favorite subject. “As a small child, I would make mixtures and contraptions with whatever I could find around the house. I’d explore my home and the outdoors, taking things apart — trying to figure out how it all worked,” he said.

“Now that I’m here at Lawrence, I can use the lab to do all those things. I think the coolest thing about science is way that it all fits together — the principles of physics apply to chemistry and the principles of chemistry apply to physics, and the same is true for almost all subcategories of science,” he concluded.