Penn Graduate Student Attends Prestigious Meeting of Nobel Laureates

By Madeleine Stone  @themadstone

It’s not every day that a graduate student gets to meet a Nobel Laureate in her field. But this summer Rianne Esquivel, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania, had the opportunity to meet not just one but 37 Nobel Laureates, all leaders in biomedical sciences.

Esquivel, who is pursuing her degree in Penn’s Cell and Molecular Biology Graduate Group in affiliation with the School of Arts & SciencesDepartment of Biology and the Perelman School of Medicine, was one of 50 students from the United States and 600 from across the world selected to participate in the prestigious Lindau Meeting, which marked its 64th year in July.

Since 1951, the Lindau Meeting has brought together Nobel Laureates in chemistry, biomedical sciences or physics, along with the next generation of top-notch researchers, for a week of lectures, workshops and networking. For the students, it’s a priceless opportunity gain career advice from leaders in their fields and to meet other talented young scientists across the world.

Esquivel studies biofilm formation, complex, three-dimensional structures consisting of billions of individual cells, in the microbe Haloferax volcanii. This non-pathogenic organism shares cellular surface structures with biofilm-forming pathogens, making it a valuable disease model. She was attracted to the program because of the meeting’s biomedical focus this year.

“It’s well established that microbial biofilms often pose significant health risks,” Esquivel explains. “With a better understanding of the surface structures involved in biofilm formation, we may be able to keep biofilms from forming in the first place, which will decrease antibiotic resistance.”

Following a rigorous, three-stage application process — Esquivel had to first receive a nomination through Penn, then apply to Mars Inc. for funding, and finally to the conference itself — she found herself in the picturesque island city of Lindau, Germany, for an inspiring week of conversations with some of the world’s top scientists.

“The days were long; we’d usually get up around 6 a.m. and wouldn’t get to bed until midnight,” Esquivel says. “But it was completely worth it.”

Each morning, Nobel Laureates gave lectures, while afternoons consisted of workshops, roundtable discussions and opportunities for students and Laureates to meet one on one. Esquivel had the opportunity to talk with geneticist Oliver Smithies, a pioneer in the development of early genetic tools in the 1950s, and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, the virologist who discovered the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

“It was exciting to have such a prominent female scientist to talk to,” Esquivel says. “Françoise’s dedication to her research was astounding. She’s traveled across the world, put her life in danger for her work and has had to make some really difficult ethical decisions.”

A week of inspirational talks and conversations strengthened Esquivel’s desire to pursue a career in biomedical research.

“I made a great network, and on the whole the experience really rejuvenated me for my research,” Esquivel says. “Seeing a person like Hamilton Smith, who had a foundational role to play in the development of his field, still engaged in research in his 80s — that was pretty inspiring.”

The 2015 Lindau Meeting will be interdisciplinary, including Nobel Laureates in physics, physiology or medicine and chemistry. Penn graduate students who wish to be considered as an institutional nominee to attend may apply via the ORAU website, including the nomination form for non-member institutions, and should submit the completed dossier to the Office of the Vice Provost of Education ( by Friday, Oct. 17, at 5:30 p.m. (EDT).

Story Photo