A Budding Scientist Finds New Inspiration in Political Science
Michael Nanfara became drawn to public policy work
Michael Nanfara entered Rutgers four years ago with his sights set squarely on medical school.
He studied molecular biology and biochemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences while immersing himself in laboratory research.
“I was basically a lab rat for my first two years,” says Nanfara, a Mays Landing native.
But by the end of his sophomore year Nanfara began seeing some drawbacks to his highly-focused approach.
“I realized I had become too narrow,” he said in a recent interview. “I felt I was missing out on too much.”
So beginning about midway through his undergraduate career, Nanfara boldly embraced change. He applied and was accepted into the Lloyd C. Gardner Fellowship Program in Leadership and Social Policy, an experience that opened his eyes to critical issues on a global scale. Nanfara began working on public policy projects in which he used his scientific knowledge to address contemporary issues involving nutrition and ethical use of technology.
“The Gardner fellowship was really the beginning of a major transition for me,” he said.
Now, as he stands poised to graduate from SAS, Nanfara is still on track to become a physician.
But his experience venturing outside his academic comfort zone has given him newfound depth, confidence, and a sense of flexibility.
“I really feel like a new person,” he said. “I’ve learned you can’t force yourself into something because it’s going to look good on a resume.”
Throughout his undergraduate journey, Nanfara’s boundless intellectual curiosity was well served by the depth and breadth of SAS, and its myriad academic options. He constantly sought out opportunities for growth, and he found faculty to guide him through new challenges.
In his first year, for example, Nanfara connected with molecular biologist Andrew Vershon, who gave him a prominent role in his research lab at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, a role that continued through his senior year.
“That was the most important experience of my college career,” Nanfara said. “Professor Vershon taught me what it means to be a scientist.”
In his junior year, when he needed a change of direction, Nanfara studied political theory under political science professor and Gardner Fellowship director Dennis Bathory.
“Professor Bathory ushered me into the world of political science,” Nanfara said. “He brought me up to speed on modern problems. I was probably the only science student in the fellowship, but I found myself really liking it. It was a breath of fresh air.”
The fellowship spurred his interest in public policy, and soon Nanfara began a project that addressed the ethical issues associated with genetic testing kits, working with Peter Gillies of the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.
“I absolutely fell in love with the idea of doing science policy,” Nanfara said.
More recently, Nanfara had taken on new challenges outside his own academic career, starting a racquetball club at Rutgers, and serving as a mentor for autistic students.
After graduation, he plans to take a year off from school to gain some life and work experience, and prepare for medical school.
“Who knows what life is going to throw at you?” he says. “What I’ve learned at Rutgers is that I need to always find the spaces that are contoured to my interests, hopes, and dreams. I now know more about what those spaces are.”