"Cornell students dream bigger dreams."

--Frank H.T. Rhodes, Cornell University Commencement, May 28, 1995

Monday, August 25, 2014

40. Niles Donegan

Lyme, New Hampshire · Arts and Sciences


Tell us about what you're doing with your life.
I’m a microbiologist who works on Staphylococcus aureus virulence at Dartmouth.  I earned my Ph.D. at Dartmouth, and stayed to be a research associate, as well as start a biotech called Saureus, which is developing an assay for rapid diagnosis of infectious diseases.  Outside lab, I live just north of Hanover with my wife Rachel and daughter Maeve in a classical New England town called Lyme.  We walk with Maeve to school every day, and at night Maeve and I sing Cornell's “Evening Song” as one of her bedtime songs.  She doesn’t understand “’Tis an echo from the walls...”, but maybe one day she’ll find out for herself.  My wife works at a science museum, where she’s been introducing the modern tinkering and maker ethic to kids and grownups.  We're both enthusiastic about the maker movement and science, which I’m sure means social doom for Maeve when she grows up.

What was your favorite class at Cornell, or the one you found the most useful?

"Ancient Art in Context” absolutely demanded critical thinking and skepticism. After studying Egyptian tombs and pottery, we were set loose on “Chariots of the Gods” and other flim-flammery.  While it wasn’t a seminar with Sagan, it was my first experience at Cornell on how to think critically.
A year of Orgo (Chem359-360-301) was the most useful, as professors Carpenter, Frechet, and Wilcox treated us as young scientists, and hated pre-meds.  We had great assignments, like doing espionage to reverse-engineer perfume scents. By the end, I had a rhythmic feel for how electrons moved in a reaction (a feeling long gone).

What is your favorite memory of your time at Cornell?

I remember that my roommate Jon and I figured out how to get tons of free stuff in the mail by collecting dining hall UPCs.   Kellogg’s would send a Lego kit FREE for just one UPC, so every day we would grab dozens of UPCs.  The EcoHouse mailroom was not pleased when 600 envelopes arrived.  We donated most, but kept 100 minifigs for Lego flashmobs.  We then expanded UPC acquisitions for 1000 liters of RC-Cola, tested Orgo chemicals on Gak and Wacky-Wall-Walkers, and made a small ball pit from free soccer balls.  Unsurprisingly, Kellogg’s started charging for promotions soon after.

What random or surprising encounters with Cornell or Cornellians have you experienced since you left?

Once, I was sitting with my family outside a country store in Woodstock, Vermont, when I heard the notes of "Annie Lisle" quietly in the distance.  My wife had no idea why my head snapped around, and I eventually found some gentlemen singing near the town green.  They were Sherwoods, and most were at the (infamous) Fall Tonic XII of our freshman year, where the Hangovers realized that champagne and velvet curtains just don’t mix.  The Sherwoods graciously covered my terrible signing voice in another round of the Alma Mater, and I returned elated back to my family.