A two-time letterwinner as a defensive lineman and team bench press recordholder, Bill Brucker traded in his Brown football uniform for a lab coat as he pursues both an M.D. and Ph.D.
He's a former football player, a defensive tackle who lettered twice while holding the team bench press record. He's a scientist in training, an accomplished researcher even as an undergraduate, with an almost-perfect GPA and five co-authored published papers -- including "Origins of Highly Mosaic Mycobacteriophage Genomes," which was featured on the cover of the prestigious journal Cell.
Bill Brucker is both. But he didn't plan it that way.
Growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pa., Brucker was naturally drawn to football. "In Western Pennsylvania there are four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and football," explains Brucker. "In season or out of season, football was my life." He wanted to become a physician, and he felt that "attending an Ivy League university was my best chance to get into medical school."
"I didn't feel like I had an unusual amount of science [aptitude] in high school," remembers Brucker, and a scientific career wasn't in his plans when he arrived at Brown. But when he received one of the highest grades in the class on a chemistry test, the department invited him to work with a professor instead of taking a mandatory laboratory. Brucker jumped at the chance, and was soon working in the lab of Professor Sergiu M. Gorun.
Juggling lab work, football, and the regular course load of a Brown student proved challenging. "On many days I would work in the lab until 2 am then start my day again at 5 am for morning workouts," Brucker recalls. "I had to maintain a positive attitude." He found that, even with the early morning workouts, football was essential. "It was good for me," he says. "It helped destress me, calm me down."
The coaches also supported his budding research career. "My most influential coach was defensive line coach Neil McGrath," Brucker recalls. "I was usually stressed out due to difficult science course loads and he would remind me that no matter how an exam turned out, life would go on." McGrath was not alone in his support. "All of the coaches would ask me about my research," says Brucker. "I even gave them a copy of my first scientific publication."
By senior year "I was dedicated to being the very best student," says Brucker. "I only played a little bit." His last day as a football player was memorable. "My last game at Columbia in 2003, as soon as the game ended it hit me that I would not be playing football anymore. It was a very surreal moment to have something that was such a big part of my life just vanish."
Brucker was applying to medical school by then, and he found that football helped there too. "Sports definitely helped me get into M.D./Ph.D. programs. It was something that made me very unique among the applicant pool," he says. "The focus of conversation in about half of all my interviews was Ivy League football. My interviewers saw that being able to balance Division I football and Ivy League academics was analogous to balancing the clinical and research sides of medicine."
Currently Brucker is an M.D./Ph.D. student at Brown, planning on receiving his Ph.D. in pharmacology in 2010 and his M.D. in 2012. Though he knows he wants to continue in research, he's not sure whether he wants to pursue the clinical side, perhaps focusing instead on pediatric research, or more purely scientific research. His current pharmacological research involves the "receptor that mediates nicotine's addictive properties. There's something connecting the receptor to the reward, and we're trying to identify the pathway."
Regardless of which career path he pursues, Brucker likes the edge football has given him. "The values of football, such as having an ‘attack' mentality, confidence, training hard, diligence and giving 100 percent of your ability to complete a task, were instilled in me through athletics," he concludes, "and I believe will help me succeed in any venue."
— Stephen Eschenbach