Women's Tennis Alumna Uses Math Skills to Find a Career Match in Medical Research

Cornell Cancer Center’s Spotlight article on Gayvert’s research.

Cornell University press release about Gayvert's “30 Under 30” award.

By Brian Bennett

Katie Gayvert ’12 had some pretty good numbers going into her senior women's tennis season at Geneseo. A three-time SUNYAC Champion and all-conference performer, her 81 victories in singles and doubles placed her well within reach of becoming only the second Knight to reach 100 wins in a career.

She also had some compelling reasons to look forward to competing in her final campaign. After a pair of SUNYAC championships and NCAA Tournament appearances in her first two seasons, the Knights had finished a close second in the conference tournament in Gayvert’s junior year, a loss that then-coach Jim Chen described at the time as “devastating.”

While it might be assumed that records and revenge were on her mind, Gayvert had long before set her sights on some different goals. A mathematics major with plans of continuing on for a Ph.D., she faced a challenging academic slate for her senior year. After considerable consideration, Gayvert decided to not play tennis in the fall semester.

“While it made me sad to be on the sidelines that fall season, I don’t have any regrets. I had a long conversation with Dr. Chen before deciding to sit out the fall season of my senior year,” said Gayvert. “I knew at that time that I wouldn’t be able to dedicate the time necessary to be playing at the level that I would need to be at, which would be unfair to my teammates. As a former physics professor, Coach Chen would always stress that academics came first and was highly supportive of my doctoral aspirations.”

Chen, who retired after last season, remembers the discussion: “She came to me for advice, knowing I would be pushing the team particularly hard that fall in order to get back to the NCAAs. But she also wanted to spend time doing a good job on her honors project and getting her applications ready for graduate/medical schools. I told her the answer was simple: get her academic work done first, then think of tennis. In addition, I advised her to aim even higher regarding graduate and medical schools.”

Three-and-a-half years later and Gayvert has added another impressive number to her resume. Last month Forbes magazine named her to its “30 Under 30” list, which highlights the successes of 30 people under the age of 30 in 20 different professional fields. Gayvert, a fourth-year student in the computational biology and medicine Ph.D. program at Weill Cornell Medical College (the medical school of Cornell University, located in New York City) was honored along with fellow doctoral student Neel Madhukar. The pair were recognized for their research in using big data algorithms to discover new anti-cancer drugs, predict drug-targeting mechanisms and address toxicity for drugs before they reach the clinical drug stage.

As part of her doctoral thesis, Gayvert uses her math background to develop computational tools that will help predict what drugs are likely to do well in clinical trials. The ability to eliminate drugs that are too toxic to tolerate before they get to the costly clinical trial phase will help steamline the development process and reduce “skyrocketing” costs for pharmaceutical companies, and more importantly, for cancer patients.

In looking back on her decision to sideline herself, Gayvert remembered that her coach and teammates strongly supported her decision and continued to treat her as a member of the squad.

“I was fortunate that the team still involved me in most of their off-court activities and I attended all of their home matches and SUNYACs,” remembered Gayvert. “This allowed me to feel like I was still part of the team, while still being able to invest my time in my academic endeavors.”

It helped that Gayvert had formed close relationships with a number of her fellow tennis competitors, all of whom would join her as members of the Class of 2012.

“My best friends from Geneseo were from the tennis team and I’m still in touch with most of them. I lived with Regina Connelly, Olga Dimic, Lauren Johnson and Monica Vieth off-campus during our junior and senior years, and Melissa Baker was with us during our junior year.”

Still, her decision also meant the breakup of a highly-successful doubles partnership with Sarah Shields ’13. The two had been paired as a team when Gayvert was a sophomore and Shields a first-year. That season, 2009-10, the duo captured 15 of 16 matches at third doubles and won the SUNYAC Championship. The next season, the pairing went 14-2 and defended their SUNYAC title.

“Sarah was a fantastic doubles partner and we had great chemistry,” stated Gayvert. “She is a very positive person, so she was always able to keep me focused when we were having a tough match. We also had a special forearm bump that we would do to get each other pumped up. On court, we had very complimentary styles and were able to set each other up well.”

The ambitious schedule Gayvert had set for herself for the fall 2011 semester was more than full enough to keep her mind off of missing competition. She took five courses, conducted her Honors Project research, tutored in the Math Learning Center, was a teaching assistant for four courses and worked on her graduate school applications.

Mathematics professor Chris Leary was the co-sponsor of Gayvert’s Honors Project and also had her as a student in a number of classes. He remembers being surprised when she came in and told him that she wasn’t going to play tennis that fall.

“I knew how important tennis and her teammates were to her and in my mind, she probably could have handled the load,” said Leary. “She always showed the ability to balance all the activities she had going. She was self-directed, self-sufficient; I never had an easier student to advise on an Honors Project.”

But academics had always been clearly in the forefront for Gayvert, with her choice of Geneseo based on its “rigorous academics and great reputation.” It also helped that many of her favorite teachers in high school had graduated from the college, giving her a feel for the quality of Geneseo graduates.

At Geneseo, her numbers in the classroom were equally, if not more impressive than her rankings on the court. Gayvert, who would graduate Summa cum Laude with a 3.84 GPA in mathematics, was a three-time member of the SUNYAC All-Academic team and two-time member of the Commissioner’s List. She had received the SUNYAC Chancellor's Scholar-Athlete award in both 2010 and 2011. At Geneseo, she was a 2011-12 Presidential Scholar, recipient of the Sigma Psi Zeta National Academic Scholarship, the Trasher/Snow Mathematics Award and the Edgar Fellows Honors Scholarship. By the end of her senior year she would add membership in Phi Beta Kappa, Pi Mu Epsilon Mathematics Honor Society, the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence as well as being chosen as the recipient of the Myrt Merritt Scholar-Athlete award.

In addition, she had three minors—computer science, biology and biomathematics—and worked on numerous research projects and papers, presenting at various professional meetings and conferences. Her broad academic background provided a strong foundation for her future path of medical research.

“Katie is a wonderful example of someone merging skills across a number of different academic areas,” stated Leary. “She has a strong understanding of mathematics theory and how to apply that in computer modeling. She bundled all of her abilities into a perfect combination of interdisciplinary work and turned her focus to cancer research.”

Gayvert’s tennis career serves as another example of her wide range of talents. A three-time All-County doubles’ player at Fairport High School, she had a strong interest in competing at the college level. She had already decided to attend Geneseo when she contacted Coach Chen prior to her senior year of high school. Once aware of her interest, Chen met with her before her campus tour, invited her to a team practice and encouraged her to come out for the team.

“Katie comes from a tennis-playing family where both parents are active players,” said Chen. “I had seen her play and thought she had the skills to improve possibly to the level we were seeking to compete at nationals. However she needed to work hard. So I encouraged her to try out for the team. Katie offered on her own to use a ball machine to work on her strokes outside of regular practice. She improved dramatically.”

Just the season before Gayvert enrolled, the tennis program had taken a considerable step forward in extending its season into the spring semester. SUNYAC league competition took place in the fall and through the 2007 season tennis competition ended in October. Starting in 2007-08, the Geneseo program scheduled matches into the spring, including a trip south during spring break.

“In the early 2000s we were consistently coming in second or third at the SUNYAC championships,” stated Chen. “If we were to win the conference championship and do well at the NCAA tournament in the spring, it would depend on recruiting more dedicated tennis players. Players who compete from August to October could not compete with those who played year long. So a determined effort ensued to expand our program from a fall only to a fall and spring one.”

Despite the extra time commitment, Gayvert felt the extended season was a positive for her academics.

“I’ve actually always performed better in school while in season, so having a spring season usually helped me academically. Being in season helped me better prioritize my time and overall just being active helped me stay focused better when studying.”

Once at Geneseo Gayvert found a positive role model in her teammates, Anna Lehet ’10, a fellow math major. As a sophomore, Gayvert was taking some upper-level mathematics classes and became a study partner with Lehet, a senior. As Gayvert progressed in her studies, the mathematics curriculum provided her a strong impetus for her post-Geneseo career.

“Geneseo’s many opportunities for applied math courses helped expose me to the research problems that ultimately inspired me to go to graduate school,” she said. “In particular, two courses really stood out: Dr. Caroline Haddad’s Linear Programming and Operations Research and Dr. Christopher Leary and Dr. Gregg Hartvigsen’s Modeling Biological Systems courses. Through these courses, I discovered that I am most excited by research problems that can make a positive impact on the world.”

In turn, Gayvert’s professors had been quickly impressed by her ability and motivation.

“Katie was and is a wonderful, motivated, hard-working, exceptional student with a great enthusiasm for mathematics,” states Haddad. “She works well in a group setting, but also exceptionally well independently. She was a pleasure for me to have in class, in part because having a motivated and interested student in the class makes the course more fun for me. What is impressive about Katie is that she can do the theory, but is also extremely interested in the applications.”

Haddad was aware of her tennis commitment, but remembers that it didn’t affect her passion and excellence in the classroom. “I have often been impressed with our athletes at Geneseo,” states the math professor, “in part because it requires a great deal of dedication and organization to succeed both academically and in sports simultaneously.”

Still it was the personal relationships that Gayvert developed with her professors that was key in formulating her post-Geneseo plans. Drs. Haddad and Leary played considerable roles in helping advance her goal of doctoral-level studies.

“They both encouraged me to get involved in research projects at Geneseo and subsequently supervised those projects,’ remembers Gayvert. “They also convinced me to apply to a REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program in applied mathematics at North Carolina State University in Summer 2011, which really prepared me for graduate level research.”

The initial demands of her doctoral program provided further evidence for Gayvert as to the true impact and value of her studies at Geneseo.

“Once in graduate school, I realized that my experiences at Geneseo were quite unique. The college’s faculty members are exceptional in their commitment and investment in student experiences and outcomes.”

It was a close personal experience that steered Gayvert’s interest and research toward the medical field, coupled with a developing realization that theory learned in the classroom could drive tangible results.

“During my freshman year, my mom was diagnosed with a rapidly growing benign brain tumor,” she related. “While she was being treated, I discovered that techniques from a branch of applied mathematics (called operations research) were utilized to minimize nearby tissue damage when she received a high dose of radiation. We later covered the basics of the concepts used in Dr. Haddad’s Operations Research course, which was really exciting and was probably the first time that I truly could see that value of what I was learning in the classroom.”

Today, well into her doctoral studies, Gayvert acknowledges the key roles played by her mentors at Geneseo.

“Dr. Chen, Dr. Leary and Dr. Haddad were three of my greatest influences during my time at Geneseo. Dr. Leary and Dr. Haddad pushed me in the classroom to develop into a strong student, while also engaging me out of the classroom in a number of research projects,” she said. “My time on the tennis team helped develop the work ethic and time management skills that remain important in my work today. All three of them were highly supportive and helpful during my graduate school application process, writing me letters of recommendation and discussing different school options.”

Chen played a pivotal part in Gayvert’s favorite tennis memory from Geneseo. In 2007-08, her first year, the Knights earned the program’s inaugural trip to the national tournament.

“I’ve never seen Dr. Chen as genuinely excited and joyful as he was after we won our first round match. It was our first appearance in the NCAA tournament ever and we were just excited to be there,” she fondly recalls. “It was especially cool because there were chair umpires set up on each court, who would very formally announce our names and the scores—normally you are on your own on the tennis court, calling the lines and announcing the scores yourself.”

Appropriately, her favorite overall remembrance of Geneseo is a melding of her academic and athletic identities. The second-round NCAA match in her senior season occurred on Commencement Saturday. College administrators made special arrangements on the day after for the graduating team members. A scaled-down but memorable version of the ceremony was held Sunday at the home of college President Christopher Dahl.

“My favorite general memory would have to be the private graduation ceremony that President Dahl held for us after we missed graduation due to winning our first round match at NCAAs,” said Gayvert. “It was really quite special and intimate, with President Dahl, Dr. Chen, and a few of the deans speaking about each of us personally to our small crowd, which included us graduating seniors, our parents, younger teammates, and a few professors that we were close with.”

That memory was made possible by the fact that Gayvert was able to rejoin the tennis squad for the spring portion of her senior season. The Knights had reclaimed the SUNYAC title in the fall, qualifying them for the NCAA Tournament in May 2012. For the spring matches, Gayvert was back in the doubles’ lineup (although not with Shields), competing in all six matches, including the two in NCAA competition.

“Dr. Chen was kind enough to let me rejoin for the spring season,” she remembers. “Looking back now, I think that I may have had regrets if I hadn’t been able to rejoin that spring season. Being able to play the spring season and close out my time at Geneseo in uniform as a Knight really gave me closure and brought my Geneseo experience full circle, since it had also began on court during preseason four years earlier.”

Despite the demands of her studies, Gayvert maintains ties with both the tennis team and the math department. Whenever she is back in Rochester she makes efforts to visit Geneseo. She’s been a spectator at tennis matches, talked to current and prospective players interested in pre-med and participated in a mathematics’ seminar designed to provide Geneseo students with information on the current opportunities in the field.

Her former professors make it clear, however, that she was far more than just a special student. Leary states that “Katie is warm and funny—a person you’d want to be your daughter. She was a blast to have as a student.”

Haddad, who had extended the invitation to speak to students, noted that there was no hesitation on the part of Gayvert in accepting the opportunity.

“She gives back,” states Haddad. “One of the best things about her has nothing to do with academics or service: Katie is very sweet and sincere. She is confident and articulate, and speaks well in public.  She is a wonderful person and as one of Forbes “30 under 30,” she has now confirmed, even beyond what I imagined, my belief that she would be successful!””

After a long moment of reflecting about Gayvert’s tenure at Geneseo, Leary perhaps summed it up the best.

“She was the perfect Division III student-athlete.”

Brian Bennett is director of design and publications and is part of the Athletic Communications and Media Relations staff.