MacArthur Fellow created strong research foundation at Penn State Berks

Danielle (Perry) Bassett, Class of 2004, was named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow along with 20 other “genius grant” winners on Sept. 17. While her research focuses on how the brain is connected and how those connections change with disease states and learning new skills, for Bassett herself, her first connections with research began at Penn State Berks. 

Bassett, who today holds the title of Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation, Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, states that her research career took a rather circuitous path. After being home schooled, she pursued her lifelong interest in biology and medicine, and began her studies at The Reading Hospital School of Nursing. Soon she found that she missed science and physics courses, so she enrolled at Penn State Berks in January 2001, originally as a Mechanical Engineering major. She soon changed her major to physics.

“I was enthralled with my first physics course,” she recalled.

As a student in the college’s Honors Program, she participated in studies that go beyond those expected of other students. It was during one of those projects that Bassett began conducting research with Ruth Daly, professor of physics, whose research focuses on astrophysics.

Daly explained that the project Bassett assisted her with involved the reconnection of magnetic field lines in the solar system, with a focus on reconnection events between the magnetic field in the solar wind and the earth’s magnetosphere.

“Danielle found several key articles almost immediately,” commented Daly. “This was a clear indication that she is very bright, as she was able to select only the most important and relevant articles from the labyrinth of possible articles. She was quick to understand the content of the articles, and we had many interesting and informative discussions of this work.”

Daly was so impressed with Bassett that she invited her to be the student instructor for the Physics I course she taught in the Fall of 2001 and her Physics II course in spring 2002.

“Danielle was one of those rare undergraduate students who is extraordinarily bright, and had matured beyond her years. Her work was clear, focused, thorough and accurate. Danielle Perry is truly a gem,” Daly stated.

While Bassett’s main interest was in physics, she also discovered a love of literature and conducted independent studies on poetry composition with Thomas Lynn, associate professor of English.

“I found the research that we conducted on literature to be really inspiring,” commented Bassett. “I even considered a double major for a time.” 

Lynn recalled, “She took two different world literature courses with me in 2001 and was highly successful in both courses. I also agreed to do an informal independent study with her that year. She wanted to develop as a writer of poetry, and although that is not my area, I agreed to work with her because she was clearly capable and enthusiastic. She worked hard, and from my perspective she did distinctly grow as a writer.

“One of the many notable aspects of working with Dani was her deep enthusiasm for literature and the writing of poetry even though her academic 'specialty' was the sciences. Clearly she was able to understand and respond deeply in many academic and creative disciplines.”

Another professor who made a significant impact on Bassett’s early college career at Penn State Berks was Sandy Feinstein, professor of English and honors coordinator. Feinstein encouraged Bassett to apply to the Penn State Schreyer Honors College and also to check into various scholarship opportunities available through the University Fellowships Office.

“All the professors at Penn State Berks believed in me,” Bassett commented. “I am very grateful for their support.”

She went on to say that Daly inspired her as a female professor in physics, and Lynn ignited her passion for poetry. She also credits Feinstein for encouraging her to apply to the Schreyer’s Honors College.

Bassett went on to complete her degree at Penn State University Park campus, where she got involved in chemistry research. Through the University Fellowships Office, she learned about different scholarship and fellowship opportunities for undergraduate students.

She was the first Penn State student to receive the Winston Churchill Scholarship for a fully paid year of academic study at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. She also won a five-year National Institutes of Health-Cambridge University Graduate Partnerships Fellowship, which she used in conjunction with the Churchill scholarship.

As an alumna, Bassett is a mentor with the Schreyer Honors College Mentoring with Honors Program, through which she shares advice with and answers questions from her student mentees. In 2012, the Alumni Association honored her as an Alumni Achievement Award winner.

“The honors college did so much for me when I was at Penn State that I wanted to give back to the students,” she said.

The MacArthur Fellow “genius grant” is one of the most prestigious awards given to individuals who show originality, innovation and creativity in their professional pursuits. As a MacArthur Fellow, Bassett will receive a five-year, $625,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that is meant to provide recipients the ability to pursue creative research or professional interests.

Last Updated October 01, 2014