Growing up in Michigan, Isabella (Bella) Borgula, a senior at Northwestern, developed a passion for chemistry earlier than most kids.

“One thing that I distinctly remember is that my dad would buy me GIANT Microbes®, these little stuffed animals of viruses and bacteria,” Borgula said. “I thought they were the coolest thing; I kept the tags on them. I think that’s where my interest in the smallest elements of science started. Not a typical thing that you buy your child.”

In addition to her father Thomas Borgula, ‘89, Borgula’s high school chemistry teacher, also fueled her interest in science.

“I fell in love with chemistry in high school. I had a wonderful chemistry class with my teacher Ms. Webb. Her enthusiasm for chemistry was palpable, and it was very easy to catch onto,” Borgula said. “We talked a lot about the applications of chemistry and I just knew that I needed to keep going in that field.”

With college decisions looming, Borgula signed up for Northwestern’s Modern Cosmology In Focus Seminar led by Dr. Andrew Rivers, in her junior year to get a better feel for the college experience.

“We went into a three hour lecture each day with a group of 20 passionate juniors in high school and we’d talk about cosmology, physics, the origins of the universe, and a bunch of really nerdy things,” says Borgula. “I decided I need to have more of this community in my life and knew I needed to apply to Northwestern. These are the people I wanted to be surrounded by—people that will encourage my passion for science and provide this supportive, constructive environment.”

Her father Tom Borgula’s own experience at Northwestern also influenced the Borgula’s decision to attend. An exceptional baseball player, Bella’s father was recruited by a number of top universities, including Northwestern. From the moment he arrived on campus, he noticed something different about the students.

“I went on a recruiting visit to Northwestern and just felt like I fit in. The students seemed much more serious about academics like me,” her father said.  “The athletic department was also more serious. Whereas the other schools? You were there to play sports.”

After graduation, Borgula’s dad was drafted by the Chicago White Sox and played a year in the minor league.  Later, he completed his DDS degree and orthodontics residency, moved back to Michigan, and got married. In 1997, he began his orthodontics practice and started his family of four with wife Terry.

From Collecting GIANT Microbes® to Chemistry Major

Borgula and her father Thomas Borgula, ‘89

At Northwestern, Borgula enrolled in general chemistry, eager to try research.

“I was a little apprehensive at first to go Northwestern because I thought that I wouldn’t be able to compete with other students for research positions. Everyone knows Northwestern is such a good school—especially the chemistry department. It’s world renowned.” Borgula said.  “I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for it, so I spent freshman year building up my confidence.”

In the fall of 2017, Borgula reached out to Thomas O’Halloran, the Morrison Professor of Chemistry and Founding Director of Chemistry of Life Processes Institute (CLP), who urged her to apply for the Institute’s Lambert Fellowship. A highly competitive two-year award for rising sophomores and juniors majoring in Chemistry, the Fellowship provides funding for hands-on laboratory research, training in how to use the equipment in CLP-affiliated core facilities, and stipends for supplies, fees and travel to academic conferences. The award also includes a mentoring plan that allows fellows to work alongside CLP faculty members and postdoctoral and graduate students who share their interests.

Borgula and her advisor Thomas O’Halloran, the Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences

“I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to compete for such a lucrative fellowship, but I spent a lot of time writing my draft and collecting feedback from people in my lab. I was fortunate enough to be given the Fellowship,” Borgula said.

O’Halloran’s groundbreaking zinc sparks research initially drew Borgula to his lab. In 2014, the group discovered that the female mammalian egg releases a dazzling burst of zinc during fertilization that passes through the protein coat and surrounds the egg. This crucial process prevents more than one sperm from fertilizing the egg.

“When a sperm is inseminated into the female reproductive track, it is developmentally mature, but it’s not yet activated for fertilization. To become capable of fertilization, it must undergo two processes. First is capacitation, where it’s starts moving a little faster, and then it undergoes the acrosome reaction,” Borgula said. “The acrosome is a little organelle that sits on the apex of the sperm head and contains a number of proteolytic enzymes that break down proteins in the female reproductive tract. My project focuses on the acrosome reaction, which is absolutely critical for fertilization.”

Lambert Fellowship Opens Doors from Switzerland to Argentina

The Lambert Fellowship, underwritten by the Institute’s generous board members, enabled Borgula to attend the International Conference on Biological Inorganic Chemistry in Switzerland last summer a rare opportunity for an undergraduate.  She registered and submitted her abstract to give a poster presentation, but, to her surprise, was selected for something even more prestigious.

“I got an email from the board saying that I had been selected to give flash presentation in front of the entire conference,” Borgula said. “It was one of the most exciting, thrilling, terrifying things I’ve ever done. Having the platform to share my passion for science with so many people that are also passionate about science is something I’ve always dreamed of.”

Her biggest fan, however, was her father who accompanied her on the trip and sat through all of the talks, in addition to Bella’s.

Borgula at the International Conference on Biological Inorganic Chemistry in Switzerland

“My dad has been such a supportive role throughout my career as a student, and now as a budding scientist,” says Borgula. “I dragged him through all the airports and it was an opportunity for him to see how much I’ve grown as an individual in college. Back at home, I’m hanging out with my family and relaxed, but he got to see me navigating cities and airports and being the adult that I’ve become while I’ve been away from home.”

The speaking opportunity elevated Borgula’s profile at the conference and attracted a number of scientists to her poster presentation about the acrosome reaction of sperm.

“Bella was up there with a bunch of graduate students doing her flash poster presentation and, to the credit of Northwestern, she sounded just like any other graduate student,” Bella’s father said. “Dr. O’Halloran has been a great PI for her. I got to meet him there and a few of his previous students who are now professor at other schools. He’s patient and treats Bella like a graduate student which has given her a lot of confidence.”

Last summer, CLP also made possible the opportunity for Borgula to travel to Argentina to conduct research in the lab of Mariano Buffone, a world-leading expert in the molecular mechanisms of mammalian sperm during fertilization.

Borgula with Jamaica Schiavi from the Buffone Lab at the Instituto de Biología y Medicina Experimental in Buenos Aires, Argentina

“His lab has a mouse line that makes it much easier for us to analyze the acrosome reaction of massive number of sperm. It was an amazing opportunity to get data more quickly, and it raised a bunch of other questions about my project and procedure and where we’re going next,” Borgula says.

Borgula intends to continue investigating the interface between biochemistry and inorganic chemistry in graduate school for which she is currently applying.

“When I first stumbled upon the CLP web page, I was amazed by how many different kinds of scientists there were,” says Borgula. “Growing up as a researcher in CLP has influenced my perspectives on what a successful researcher should be and taught me the importance of collaboration. Exposure to all of these different perspectives has been extremely influential in my growth and development as a scientist.”

The appreciation goes both ways.

“Having undergraduate students as passionate as Bella in the lab is one of the reasons why I went into academic research,” says O’Halloran. “She brings this incredible enthusiasm for chemistry and biology and a willingness to try any kind of experiment, no matter how difficult. It’s pretty rare for an undergraduate to have accomplished so much at this stage and it bodes well that she will have an outstanding career in biomedical research.”

by Lisa La Vallee

Feature image (top of page): Undergraduate Isabella Borgula gives a flash poster presentation at the International Conference on Biological Inorganic Chemistry in Switzerland.