When she was six years old, Natalie Rutkowski told her mother she wanted to find a cure for cancer.
Her mother said she didn’t think anything of it at the time, but her daughter, now a Loyola senior, is set to study infectious diseases at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University this summer. Johns Hopkins was ranked second best medical research school in the United States in 2018 according to U.S. News.
Rutkowski, a molecular biology major, will begin the doctoral diversity program at Johns Hopkins in July in Baltimore. The two-year program is meant to provide students with experiences to prepare them for doctorate programs, according to the Johns Hopkins website.
Originally from suburban Bartlett, Rutkowski said some of her success comes from Loyola’s Achieving College Excellence (ACE) program, which provides counseling and resources to first-generation students, low income families and students with disabilities.
Rutkowski’s parents immigrated in 1989 to the United States from Poland in hopes of obtaining better education and job opportunities for the future.
When they heard their daughter would be one of eight participants in the doctoral diversity program, her parents said they were proud and always knew Rutkowski would excel in science.
Rutkowski’s parents agreed their daughter’s acceptance into Johns Hopkins has been the “happiest moment of their lives,” even though her father said he had to Google the school.
“It means everything to us that [our daughter has] made it in America,” Rutkowski’s parents said in a joint email to The Phoenix.
Rutkowski said her experience as a first-generation college student has given her a unique perspective going into the prestigious post-graduate program.
Rutkowski said she credits ACE for giving her professional and personal connections.
“It’s a nice mini community at Loyola,” Rutkowski said.
Rutkowski said being accepted into the program has shown her parents their hard work coming to the United States was well worth it.
“It’s so amazing for [my parents] to see that they came here for a reason, to raise a family and have a better life here,” Rutkowski said.
Kathleen Dillon, an academic advisor and counselor for ACE, agreed, saying the ACE community functions like a family.
“Having Natalie get into this program was like hearing from a younger cousin,” Dillon said. “We were just thrilled for her. We’ve seen her grow and watched her develop … so I was able to share in that joy with her. I couldn’t be happier for her.”
Dillon said one of Rutkowski’s most important attributes is her genuine character along with her willingness to fully commit herself to her work.
“Something that has stuck out to me about Natalie is her cheerful attitude,” Dillon said. “Any time I run into her it’s just nice to see her face. She’s just delightful.”
During her time at Loyola, Rutkowski said she valued her relationship with Dr. James Lodolce, a lecturer in the biology department. Lodolce said Rutkowski stuck out as a “curious” student during her virology class and independent study.
“She lets her questions sort of guide her learning,” Lodolce said. “She strikes me as someone who’s really genuinely interested in learning more than what’s just presented in class and at the same time she’s not afraid to admit when she doesn’t understand a particular technique or something that’s being talked about in class.”
In fields as academically challenging as biology and the medical sciences, Lodolce said Rutkowski’s class notes were often filled with questions, showing her ability to admit what she didn’t understand or needed help with.
“So many concepts build upon each other, so if there’s information at the start that you don’t grasp, then it really snowballs and it gets to the point where you don’t have a thorough understanding at all,” Lodolce said.
Lodolce said he writes 20 to 30 letters of recommendation per year for students hoping to continue their education, but he rarely hears the outcome. He said having a student achieve something like this is a reminder of why he does his job.
“In some ways, it’s sort of a celebration for myself in terms of thinking, ‘Wow, one of my students is going to go on to do something greater in terms of their study,’” Lodolce said. “It’s very fulfilling and really one of the reasons I do what I do is to see what my students go on to, so it’s always refreshing to see.”