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School of Molecular Sciences Dean’s Medalist has a passion for coding

Portrait of ASU grad Holly Hemesath.

School of Molecular Sciences Dean's Medalist Holly Hemesath. Photo by Mary Zhu

November 28, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

Holly Hemesath only discovered coding as a first-year student in ASU’s School of Molecular Sciences and her math program but quickly moved to develop her own codes for molecular simulations and is now fully invested in the field of computational chemistry.

Hemesath, who is graduating this December with a Bachelor of Science, majoring in biochemistry and mathematics, and the Dean’s Medal, had thought coding was like learning a foreign language and that it was just a lot of memory work. She soon realized, upon compounding programming with biochemistry, that it provides one with an essentially limitless potential to create anything one might need or want.

“I had a really great chemistry professor my freshman year named Anne Jones (currently ASU’s vice provost for undergraduate education) and she really encouraged undergrad students to find research,” Hemesath said. “On Fridays she would bring in professors who would talk about their research. Professor Heyden (from the School of Molecular Sciences) was one of them and when he talked about computational chemistry, I had never heard of it before but it was extremely interesting the way he connected mathematics and statistics with computer programming and chemistry.”

“I try to introduce students early to theoretical aspects of chemistry and gave an equation-filled guest lecture in one of Holly’s freshman classes,” said Assistant Professor Matthias Heyden. “I did not expect the students to be particularly excited, but it was this lecture that sparked Holly's interest in joining my group.”

Heyden explained that they initially set off with the crazy idea of developing design strategies for drugs that target so-called “undruggable” proteins, which lack any consistent structure. Over time, the idea became less crazy and while they are currently assembling different pieces of this puzzle, an experimental group in California is testing Holly’s computational predictions in the lab.

“In the meantime, Holly dove deep into the fundamental algorithms of molecular simulations for her honors project,” Heyden said. “Many mornings and afternoons were spent in which whiteboards and glass walls around our offices were filled with rows of mathematical derivations, to the occasional bewilderment of our office neighbors. Holly developed her own C/C++ codes to test her algorithms in atomistic simulations and her honors thesis contains critical findings that benefit many projects in the group.”

“Working in Professor Heyden’s lab has taught me to continuously push myself to learn, to apply my knowledge, and, most importantly, to always ask questions,” Hemesath said. “Professor Heyden and the group have always been extremely supportive of any effort to academically grow, always providing helpful and much needed criticism and advice and being a constant source of genuine inspiration and encouragement.”

Hemesath is a Barrett, The Honors College student and George M. Bateman Memorial Scholarship winner (fall 2020 and spring 2021) as well as the School of Molecular Sciences' Therald Moeller Scholarship recipient for fall 2022.

Hemesath said that scholarships don’t just relieve a financial burden but also an emotional and mental one. Scholarships enable students to focus on their work both at ASU and in the lab as well as extracurricular activities.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in at ASU?

Answer: Having never been exposed to coding before, when I took my first programming class, I realized how it provides one essentially limitless potential to create anything one might need or want, and that my initial prejudice against the subject of it being mostly memorization-based or akin to learning a foreign language was incorrect. Upon further compounding programming with biochemistry, I fully invested myself into the field of computational chemistry.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I was encouraged to admit when I have difficulty understanding something. People often feel pressure to deal with their confusion privately and hope to resolve it themselves, but it is a respectable skill to know how to reach out for help.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU provides an extraordinary number of opportunities outside of the classroom to apply yourself, whether that be research, internship and volunteer opportunities, recreational clubs and organizations, and so on. ASU provides an environment to truly challenge yourself to grow, academically or otherwise. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: My Human Event teacher, Professor (Mina) Suk, taught me the importance of not being discouraged by your mistakes, and instead using them to push yourself to improve. You should always give yourself multiple chances, and your improvement may end up surprising yourself. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Never limit yourself and your opportunities — feel free to reach out to anything that you are interested in, whether it be an internship, a teacher’s assistant position, a recreational extracurricular and so on, no matter how seemingly far-fetched it may be.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The third floor of Noble (Library), specifically the individual study rooms with large windows. The third floor is always the quietest, and being in those rooms gave a sense of peace and focus. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After taking a year to work in industry and in biotech labs as a lab technician, I hope to continue to graduate school (computational chemistry) and work on earning a doctoral degree in order to pursue a career in academia and research.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would make education and all supporting services around it, such as mental health, housing, food, health care and so on, more accessible and affordable, especially to underrepresented groups and those who otherwise do not have the access to these opportunities.  

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