Brandes Earns Highest Honor for Biology Thesis
Eileen Brandes

Feb. 13, 2012

By Kent Reichert

Fifth-year field hockey senior Eileen Brandes of the University of Michigan field hockey team stepped into Crisler Center this past December and received her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and French. She ended an academic and athletic career at U-M that's full of high honors and accomplishments. But it's the accomplishment she earned at the end of her time in Ann Arbor that could propel her career to great heights.

This past year, Brandes completed a research thesis sponsored by Dr. Lyle Simmons in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology titled 'RecO couples the assembly of RecA-mediated DNA repair complexes to replication forks in Bacillus subtilis.' For those not up on biology lingo, the thesis focused on DNA repair pathways. When DNA is broken, which proteins are recruited to repair it and how do they interact with one another.

With everything that goes into a research thesis, it's a great accomplishment just to complete the process. But Brandes did this in a calendar year (it usually takes two years to complete) while playing a varsity sport at the highest level in the Big Ten and earning the rare distinction of highest honors by the biology department, which goes to a select number of students, if any, each year.

Receiving this tremendous honor probably would not have been accomplished if Brandes didn't redshirt her freshman year at U-M. With her classwork finished in the spring of 2011, she put all of her academic efforts into the project. She also has her mom to thank for piquing her interest in a research thesis.

"My mom (U-M alum Mary Callam) had always mentioned writing a thesis ever since I started at Michigan," Brandes said. "She said that it opens up many opportunities and that it is a great experience to research something where the answer is unknown. I always brushed it off because working in a science lab is a huge time commitment. Unlike other disciplines, you have to be in the lab to get your work done and experiments take a while to complete. Because I had always planned to graduate in four years, when I decided to take my fifth year, I had the space in my schedule to possibly work in a lab."

Brandes started working in the lab in December of 2010 and finished on the due date of Dec. 1, 2011. Brandes said she put in about 25 hours a week, learning all the techniques and mastering the ability to take pictures with the microscope that she needed for images. One of the big things that helped her finish the thesis in a year was receiving one of the Honors Summer Fellowships, allowing her to live in Ann Arbor during the summer and work full-time on the project. Brandes finished up the experiments in September and wrote the 65-page paper in October and November.

"That actually worked out well because that's when we started traveling a lot for field hockey and the papers I needed for background research were all online," Brandes said. "I was able to do most of my work on the computer and communicate via email with my professor when we were on away trips."

All of the work and research Brandes did in the fall did not hinder her play on the field hockey pitch. The co-captain started all 22 games for the Wolverines in the backfield for the Big Ten regular-season champions and NCAA quarterfinalists. She had her first career goal in the NCAA first-round game against New Hampshire and had assists in Big Ten Tournament games against Iowa and Penn State. Brandes also was a catalyst to U-M's defense, which had six shutouts on the year and a 1.73 goals-against average.

She thanks her teammates and coaches for allowing her to do both at a high level.

"Balancing field hockey, my thesis and my other classes proved to be a delicate process," Brandes said. "I won't sugar coat it, this past year was probably the hardest and tiring but most rewarding one ever. In the winter of 2011, I came to the lab in between classes and after training in the evenings. Free time became a thing of the past. I would leave my house at 6:30 a.m. for training and besides a quick shower, I was doing something until 10-11 p.m. This summer, a rest period for most people, was filled with 5:30 a.m. workouts, 10 hours in the lab and then weight lifting after. Luckily (field hockey strength and conditioning coach) Lew (Porchiazzo) was so accommodating and committed because one thing I never wanted to sacrifice during this process was the responsibility I had to my team to arrive at preseason ready to go as a teammate, a fifth-year and a co-captain."

"In-season was the same thing," the Falmouth, Maine native said. "Life was field hockey, my other classes and my thesis 24/7. My teammates were always checking in on me, making sure I slept, showing that they knew what I was going through and most importantly listening to me on those days where I thought I was going to crack. I questioned what I had gotten myself into a lot during this process, but I just kept pushing through because I knew it was a rare opportunity."

Brandes' commitment, success and time management did not surprise head coach Marcia Pankratz.

"First of all, it's no surprise that Eileen would achieve the highest honors for her thesis," Pankratz said. "I think that she is very mature for her age -- she's an old soul. Her work ethic is off the charts and so is her ability to organize her time. She wants to be high achieving in everything and she's an intelligent woman. She has high expectations for herself. It's all of these things combined that create someone who is going to be super successful in everything she does."

"You just love having players like that on your team," Pankratz continued. "One of the best compliments that you can give someone is that they make everyone else around them better. She had the ability to do that this year and it wasn't a surprise that she was the captain of the team that won the Big Ten championship and was fifth in the country."

To receive honors in the program in biology, Brandes had to present her research in an oral presentation at a public forum. With a field hockey road trip scheduled during a conference in Ann Arbor, she was able to attend a conference in Wisconsin, which was predominately attended by Ph.D. students and post-doctorate fellows.

"The work some of these scientists had done there was incredible," Brandes said. "I couldn't believe the things they had discovered and how they went about solving it. My project felt so juvenile compared to theirs, but then I realized that they had been working on it for years and that my project had that potential, it just hadn't reached it yet. "

Dr. Simmons has been impressed with Brandes throughout the whole process of the research thesis.

"For Eileen, the conference was a way to satisfy the public presentation requirement of her honors and it gave her a chance to share her work with research leaders in her field," Dr. Simmons said. "In a typical year at Michigan, around 20 to 30 students will receive honors out of approximately 550 graduates across all biology concentrations. Of the group that receives honors, a small number of students will receive high honors and only one or sometimes two will receive highest honors. In some years, no student receives highest honors because it is rare and the honors work needs to be clearly distinguished. Thus, what Eileen has accomplished is a tremendous achievement."

So what's next for Eileen?

"As for right now, I am working in my lab full time to get my thesis work published and I eventually hope to go to graduate or medical school," Brandes concluded. "I think I want to be a professor, but it's all still a tossup. I applied to teach English for this coming year in France. It's an opportunity to live abroad and work on my language skills, something that I really enjoy, but didn't get a chance to do while at Michigan. We'll see where it all takes me, but I know that even though I may have over-extended myself these past four-and-a-half years, it has all paid off and I have opened so many doors for myself."