February 14, 2018

Sam Weber ’18 says he’s the “type of person who likes to stay busy.” That’s an understatement. As a student researcher, he trains others working on cell biology experiments and explores the use of the performing arts in public health education. And this spring he is directing his second 24-Hour Musical, Heathers the Musical. The Dedman College Scholar and University honors student will graduate in May with B.S. degrees in biological sciences, and health and society, and a B.A. in chemistry, with minors in Latin, classical studies, musical theatre, history and human rights. The senior dynamo is currently weighing several post-SMU academic opportunities that will lead to his ultimate goal: medical school.

Growing up in Overland Park, Kansas, Weber became fascinated with science by watching Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. The 2001 film, the first 3-D animated feature made outside Hollywood, was directed by SMU alumnus John Davis ’84. Weber, whose mother is a nurse, imagined being Jimmy while playing with his junior chemistry set. Later, when he stumbled upon the Harry Potter novels and films, he says his interest in science became intertwined with magic.

In seventh grade, after Weber heard a neurologist speak to his class about the wonders of the brain, he began to make the connection between science and medicine. While his fellow students were enthralled with the brain-shaped gummies she passed around the class, Weber locked onto the floating pink blob in a jar she had brought for show and tell. “She said the brain was ‘the last true frontier of science,’” he recalls.

In high school he straddled the two worlds of science and art – taking AP biology and chemistry courses and working downtown at a neurology lab, while participating in theatre, rehearsing for plays and musicals nightly. He thought that when he got to college he would have to keep his two loves – the sciences and the arts – separate.

But when he got to the Hilltop, he says he realized he could successfully combine those seemingly disparate worlds. As a University honors student in on the pre-med track and through numerous campus opportunities, SMU has enabled him to explore his interests in the performing arts. In his senior year, he has even found interesting ways to fuse his interests.

Patience With The Process

As a first-year student in his general chemistry course, Weber made such an impression that Associate Professor Brian Zoltowski considered him a natural to work in his lab.

Before enrolling at SMU, Weber had already gained lab experience at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Zoltowski says Weber “displayed a unique combination of creativity, passion and deductive reasoning that is, frankly, atypical anywhere. His ability to devote himself to any task, and complete it at the highest possible level, made me trust him right away.”

Nearly four years later, Weber runs the entire cell biology focus of Zoltowski’s lab, which conducts research on circadian clocks and the molecular mechanisms of blue-light photoreceptors. The senior trains graduate and undergraduate students who work with cell culture and drug discovery projects. He is instrumental to the research group’s mission as he leads and directs multiple projects, which has enabled Zoltowski to greatly expand their research scope.

On a Thursday afternoon in November, Weber is working in the tissue lab at Dedman Life Sciences Building on what he calls the “downstream biological application of manipulating proteins.” His project focuses on a protein complex that is responsive to light “much like the rest of our circadian biology; our rhythms are linked to the sun and the light we have available,” Weber says. During a process called transfection, he forces some human cells to take up and incorporate foreign DNA into their own. Once that DNA is incorporated, the cells start to express that altered form of the protein, “so we can see how the overall complex functions with these changes in response to light.”

The transfecting process is precise and time-intensive, requiring a lot of tedious work, Weber says while adding one of 2,112 pipette strokes to different wells. After this step, he puts the cells under a blue LED lamp to simulate an “awake” state. The next day he treats these cells with a solution that causes them to glow in varying intensities.

On this particular day, the experiment doesn’t generate any usable data. The blank wells show the same or higher luminescence than some samples, which shouldn’t be physically possible, he says. “This tells me something was wrong. In this case, one critical reagent, a substance or compound added to a system to cause a chemical reaction, was running low.” So he orders a new bottle and repeats the experiment, troubleshooting until it doesn’t have an error.

The setback doesn’t bother Weber. “So many things can go wrong in biochemistry – the temperature in the room, the humidity, how bright the room is, how much air the AC is moving, shelf life of reagents and more can all contribute, just like human error, to poor results. Things don’t work all the time; science is slow and crawling,” he adds.

SMU senior Sam Weber in the tissue lab.
Sam Weber says so many things can go wrong in biochemistry.

Finding The Magic

“I’m the type of person who needs to stay busy and wants to be involved,” Weber says, adding that SMU enabled him to engage in many different activities, take on several majors and sample numerous minors because it accepted all 46 hours of his AP credits, allowing him to get ahead in his biology degree plan. “There are lots of opportunities to get involved at SMU,” pointing out that funding often is made available through Program Council or Student Senate for events like SMU’s 24-Hour Musical.

Outside his classroom and lab work, Weber joined the student-run Program Council, overseeing campus concerts and entertainment events and directing Sing Song, the annual competition among student organizations that perform musical revues. He also served as a resident assistant in Virginia-Snider Commons for two years, providing resources and programming on mental health, career planning and handling social stressors. And he’s president of Alpha Epsilon Delta Pre-Health Honor Society and on the Embrey Human Rights Program Student Leadership Board, to name only a few of his numerous roles.

He’s studied abroad with SMU in Oxford, Rome and Paris, and went on SMU’s most recent human rights trip to Poland over the winter break. All the while, he also applied to medical schools, a time-consuming and demanding task in itself.

Scenes from Into the Woods

With the 24-Hour Musical, Weber is following in the footsteps of his older brother, Charlie Weber ’16, who along with Ally Van Deuren ’15 began the musical in spring 2015 to provide nontheatre majors an opportunity to perform on campus. The production is choreographed, blocked and rehearsed during 24 hours spread over three days. Last fall, Weber directed Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, staged on the quad in front of Dallas Hall in September during Family Weekend. This was his fifth 24-Hour Musical.

During the first year of the SMU 24-Hour Musical, Van Deuren recalls, “Sam, then a freshman, walked in the first day ready to work. He took partial or total lead in choreography, tech, production and costume design, graphic design and many more day-of tasks that no one else had the headspace to handle. He was a much-needed source of organization, whether he was lending a hand with heavy lifting, maintaining order with a cast of 40 students after a long day of rehearsing or finding quick solutions for any last-minute costume mishaps.”

Weber also is recognized for maintaining a cool head in the face of possible disaster. During rehearsal and the staging of Into the Woods, the sprinklers came on in the flowerbeds where the orchestra sat. Weber was unflappable.

Sam Weber says art is innate in all people.During the chaos that a tightly developed production engenders, Weber found time to mentor the next generation of 24-Hour Musical leaders. Sophomore theatre major Stevie Keese ’20 assisted Weber with Into the Woods and found him generous and approachable. “Sam helped me articulate my artistic thoughts through our late-night passionate debates on the future of theatre and the arts,” she says. He also taught her about ambition and “how to ask for exactly what you want with no apologies, while continuing to be gracious and grateful.”

Weber has found working on 24-Hour Musical to be invaluable in developing skills that will carry over into his post- SMU life. “It is some of the best training students can get working in professional environments. We hold the project to a very high standard, and I’d like to think that learning on the fly, making bold choices and the time management that are required for 24-Hour to be successful are the same kinds of skills professional theatre artists develop,” he says.

He’s also been grateful to his professors, who have given him leeway with his classes and studies to spend time cultivating and following his theatrical interests. Last year, Weber worked as a choreography fellow for the Public Works Dallas musical production of The Tempest, co-produced by Meadows School of the Arts and the Dallas Theater Center. The community outreach production used local community groups and 200 nonprofessionals to stage Shakespeare’s play. Weber found it “motivating to work with people who had never done performance art before, but still got it; they understood movement and narrative. It really reaffirms how art is truly innate in all people.”

Putting It All Together

As a capstone to his four years at SMU, Weber is merging his love of science and the arts through a research project that explores the relationship between performing arts and public health from a medical anthropology angle. He is studying how theatre performance can help engage the public in a discussion of mental illness, thereby reducing the stigma it often creates. His research is supported by a Mayer Interdisciplinary Research Fellowship.

Brian Zoltowski says creativy is a key part of the scientific process.Weber says that everything he’s done or achieved at SMU has helped prepare him for medical school and a life in the profession. As an undergraduate, he didn’t want to be what is called a “gunner,” a term applied to pre-med students who adhere solely to a regimen of science courses and, while making high GPAs, explore little else outside that regimen.

As his passions for pure science and performance have intersected, he’s come to understand that “medicine is an art. Physicians perform for and with their patients, seeking to achieve an honest and productive outcome,” Weber says.

Zoltowski, who has observed how Weber has grown in multiple ways, regards him more as a colleague than as a mentee. “Sam as a student is unique. In the sciences people often forget that you need to be extremely creative, have excellent abilities in deductive reasoning and be skilled in computational methods,” he says. “Creativity is a key part of the scientific process, as we have to find unique ways to combine disparate concepts or new approaches to tackle complex problems. Often young scientists will be unable to combine the deductive and computational approaches with creative insight. Sam is different – he excels in all three capacities, even in this early stage of his career. Most important, his strength is in creativity and thinking outside the box. That is why he will have tremendous success in anything he pursues.”

Susan White ’05