Influential professors fostered the freedom to explore unexpected interests for Alison
Sweeney ’01, who now does the same for her students at Yale University.
Alison Sweeney ’01 arrived on Illinois Wesleyan’s campus in the Fall of 1997 knowing
one thing for certain: she wanted to do a lot of things.
The two-hour drive down Interstate 39 from her hometown of Rockford, Illinois, gave
Sweeney one last opportunity to make a mental checklist of all the endeavors she planned
to undertake as an eager college freshman.
“I had a lot of interests in high school that I wanted to keep pursuing,” she explained.
Sweeney ultimately chose IWU for the freedom to do just that. Some gentle coaxing
from her parents, alums Dennis ’73 and Sue (Peters) Sweeney ’75, didn’t hurt. But
passions for biology and Russian language and playing the trumpet — and the desire
to delve into previously unexplored areas — guided her decision more than anything
“I was really excited about the opportunities at Wesleyan to pursue a lot of interests
with some seriousness all at once,” she said.
Sweeney found what she was looking for at IWU and, thanks to mentoring from dedicated
faculty members, her eyes were opened to new interests and fascinating areas of study.
Gabe Spalding, B. Charles and Joyce Eichhorn Ames Professor of Physics, proved to
be an important ally for Sweeney. When a burgeoning interest in physics sometimes
felt at odds with a declared biology major (Sweeney was a double major in both biology
and Russian), Spalding offered encouragement and advice on how to combine her interests.
“I remember having some really good conversations with him,” she said.
Marina Balina, recently retired Isaac Funk Professor of German and Russian, helped
Sweeney land a spot in IWU’s study abroad program that sent Sweeney to Bratislava,
Slovakia, for a semester. “I couldn’t have done that without Dr. Balina’s support,”
Biology professors Will Jaeckle, Loni Walker and the late Susie Balser also played
important roles during Sweeney’s time at IWU.
And an experience gained between her sophomore and junior years at IWU provided a
breakthrough moment for Sweeney.
Encouraged by Balser, her research adviser at IWU, Sweeney applied for the National
Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program and was selected
for a summer internship at Stony Brook University. The program offered Sweeney the
opportunity to research at a top-flight institution, alongside a distinguished professor
sharing her research interest in invertebrate physiology.
She was greeted with some bad news, however, upon her arrival that summer at Stony
“My intended mentor had gone to Sweden for research and they had to scrounge up somebody
else for me,” Sweeney recalled. “The guy was a biogeochemist and, at first, I was
like, ‘What am I going to do? This is a disaster! I don’t know anything about biogeochemistry!’”
But Sweeney found her new mentor, Sergio Sanudo-Wilhelmy, to be supportive and insightful,
much like the faculty members she studied under at Illinois Wesleyan. Her passion
for research was reinforced. Perhaps most importantly, the experience proved to be
an empowering one for Sweeney, who maneuvered an unexpected shift in the focus of
her research without blinking.
“Although it wasn’t anything like what I thought I was going to be doing, I had a
real knack and love for the process of research in and of itself,” Sweeney said. “It
ended up being a great experience, being thrown into this thing that I wasn’t initially
interested in, and I found that the process of asking and answering a question through
experiments and data was really exciting and satisfying.”
Sweeney finished her time at Illinois Wesleyan with a bachelor’s degree two years
later. She graduated magna cum laude and with research honors for her study, “Morphology and Vascular Physiology of the
Segmented Marine Worm, Glycera dibranchiata.” A Presidential Scholar and a charter member of IWU’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa,
Sweeney left IWU ready for the next chapter of her story.
Sweeney credits her IWU experience for helping her navigate a rigorous Ph.D. program
Duke University and six years of postdoctoral work at the University of California,
Santa Barbara. Research interests born at IWU blossomed in those settings. At Duke,
she pursued a doctorate in biology, even while her academic interest veered toward
physics (once again, Spalding provided guidance). At UCSB, she published her first
major research findings, detailing the biophysical mechanisms that underpin squid
“I don’t know if students at some of those research schools receive as strong a grounding
in the fundamentals in the field. I think that is what Illinois Wesleyan really offered
me, and I think that’s really served me well in having a strong foundation to work
from and being able to be flexible and creative,” Sweeney said. “I started off as
a generalist, rather than a specialist, leaving undergrad.”
Sweeney earned a multitude of awards and grants and fellowships during her time at
Duke and UCSB, all of which helped her eventually land her first professorship, at
the University of Pennsylvania, in 2012 (a recommendation from Spalding, who put in
a good word with Penn faculty members, only strengthened her candidacy).
The new role allowed Sweeney not only to lead a research group for the first time
in her career, but to build it from the ground up, selecting undergraduate, graduate
and postgraduate students to fill out the team’s roster. The group studied the evolution
of novel materials in nature, which provided an umbrella wide enough to cover Sweeney’s
many areas of interest. Studies included the self-assembly of squid eye lenses, giant
clams’ ability to turn sunlight into fuel, and the mechanism behind the dazzling array
of shapes found in grains of pollen.
Sweeney is, and has always been, fascinated by the simple solutions nature employs
to thrive in a complex world; she’s prone to phrases like “nature finds a way” and
“nature figures it out.”
Whether it’s self-assembly of squid lenses (which she compares to throwing a set of
loose Legos in a paper bag, shaking it, and opening it to find a fully-assembled Lego castle)
or the way iridocytes and microalgae cells align in giant clams to concentrate sunlight
in what can fairly be described as a natural solar panel, Sweeney constantly marvels
at processes in nature that not even the world’s leading engineers can replicate.
But Sweeney isn’t the only one who wonders what if…
There’s growing interest within the scientific community to determine if nature’s
solutions, perfected by evolution, can be used as blueprints for 21st century products
and processes. Sweeney attended a conference in Switzerland last year focused on “biomaterials,”
“bioinspiration” and “biomimicry” — all trending topics in the field.
“This notion that biology knows how to do really sophisticated things with really
simple building blocks is a popular idea,” Sweeney explains. “I think where we are
at, and I think what we are working toward as a field, is how do you formalize this
and what is sort of the best algorithm for taking a notion of how biology works, or
the principles of how biology works, and systematically translating those things into
“And I think we’re getting better at it.”
Sweeney took another step in her academic journey last summer when she moved from
one Ivy League institution to another, joining the faculty at Yale University. The
move was made, at least in part, to accommodate her marriage to a fellow professor
(her husband is a chemist who also leads a research team). The couple had maintained
what Sweeney termed an “Amtrak marriage” — she utters the phrase with what sounds
like equal parts love and loathing — for three years.
Leaving Penn was difficult, Sweeney said, but it also afforded her an opportunity
to do something new and exciting. She spent the Fall 2019 semester rebuilding her
research group and getting acclimated to the academic environment at Yale. She’s teaching
a large undergraduate course this spring and expects to be quite busy balancing her
teaching schedule while rebooting her research group.
As the group’s leader, she’s perpetually trying to “stay in business” through dedicated
grant-writing and identification of other resources. An annual trip to the island
country of Palau to study giant clams requires coordination and funding. Even more
planning is needed when the group secures time aboard a National Science Foundation-owned
research vessel that enables the group to collect and study deep-sea squid.
“We basically pack up the whole lab into a moving truck and take the truck to the
ship,” Sweeney explained. “That ends up being a really intensive one- or two-week
period where we work really long hours to get as much data and as many samples as
we can in a really compressed time.”
The bulk of Sweeney’s time is spent working with students. She assigns work to eager
undergraduate students thirsty for experience. She mentors graduate students, weaning
them from supervised roles to independent work. She serves as a sounding board for
her postdocs, some of whom go on to lead their own research groups.
“When I got my professorship, mentoring students was kind of the big question mark.
It’s the one part of the job that you know you are going to have to do, but you don’t
have any real direct experience with it, and you don’t know what it’s going to be
like,” Sweeney said. “But I have been beyond pleasantly surprised to find that it’s
really the meat of the job and the most fun part of the job to have these really smart,
talented early-20-somethings show up on your doorstep and want to do your work with
“You sort of watch them grow up and mature in science, and the process is just really
fun and satisfying.”
Sweeney often sees younger versions of herself in the students she works alongside,
especially when they pose interesting questions or suggest unique lines of inquiry.
And, in that moment, she tries to do for them what her many mentors did for her.
“A lot of it comes back to my experience at Illinois Wesleyan and being given a lot
of freedom to explore my interests,” Sweeney says. “And those lessons I learned at
IWU have served me well mentoring my own students.”