Published: June 11, 2024 By

Ava Altenbern, who double-majored in biochemistry and art history, reflects on charting her path through a pandemic

In December 2020, in the midst of a pandemic lockdown, Ava Altenbern, then a sophomore, penned a film review of I’m Thinking of Ending Things for the online student magazine The Bold. She praised its experimentation with nonlinear storytelling and depiction of the “uncontrollable motion of life.”

At the time of Alternbern’s review, the film’s theme of disjointed temporality reflected her experience of COVID-19 disrupting her life at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she hoped to pursue biochemistry and art history and make friends on campus.


Ava Alternbern

“When the pandemic hit, it was a really hard time because I felt like I was going backwards,” Altenbern says. As a freshman living in the dorms, she had to return home to Arizona. “I think it definitely contributed to people feeling alone; that they didn’t have a handle on what was going on in their lives.”

Like countless other students, Altenbern initially struggled with the topsy-turvy world of lockdowns and online learning. However, she ended up charting a prolific undergraduate career in biochemistry and art history at CU Boulder, graduating summa cum laude in May 2023. She is heading to Bethesda, Maryland, this fall for a postbaccalaureate research program at the National Institutes of Health.

Blurring the arts and sciences

When Altenbern arrived at CU Boulder in fall 2019, she didn’t know she would double-major in the arts and sciences. As an incoming biochemistry student, she immersed herself in the world of molecular interactions, eventually pursuing laboratory research on riboswitches, which are segments of messenger RNA molecules, for her honors thesis.

However, “I missed the side of being able to write analytical essays like I did in high school,” Altenbern says. “During COVID, I just flipped to art history on a whim and decided to commit to it as a second major. I ended up loving it.”

Although Altenbern faced a massive workload from her biochemistry and art history classes, she found that the two disciplines complemented each other as well as her interest in human anatomy and medicine.

“People don’t think that science and art cross over at all, but it’s all part of the human experience,” Altenbern says. “They’re different lenses of looking at the world.”

Altenbern credits her brother, who attended Columbia College Chicago to study film directing and animation, for her parallel interest in the arts and humanities. “Whenever I’d visit him, I’d cruise through The Art Institute of Chicago,” Altenbern says.

Altenbern was especially impressed by “The Art That Made Medicine” exhibit at the CU Art Museum, which showcased how medical representations of the human body are embedded in the cultural ideals of their historical moment.

“A lot of people don’t realize how expansive art history is,” Altenbern says, adding that the interpretation of art must also consider its historical and social backgrounds. “You’re not just looking at paintings, but you’re looking at clothing, artifacts and medical textbooks.

“I always knew I was going to go into the sciences in high school, but I surprised myself that I chose art history as my second major. But I think it’s all connected; doing one has helped me develop the other.”

Chasing the sun

In spring 2021, after her film review was published, Altenbern faced a daunting requirement for her biochemistry major: Experimental Physics I.

“I was doing some really hard classes at that time,” Altenbern says. “I’m not a physics person at all.”

However, that class turned out to be “the perfect example of how to adapt your class to online learning,” Altenbern says. She was tasked with analyzing data from solar flares. Her instructor “made it so much more interactive than it could’ve been.”

Heather Lewandowski, a professor of physics at CU Boulder who taught the class, conducted a study with the help of nearly 1,000 undergraduate students to solve a mystery about the sun that has puzzled astrophysicists: Why is the sun’s corona millions of degrees hotter than its own surface?

Altenbern was one of the students who contributed to Lewandowski’s study. “You got put in a team, and (the team members) taught you some Python coding, which is something I thought I’d never learn,” Altenbern says.

Along with 994 other students, Altenbern’s data analysis of solar flares helped dispute a prevailing theory about the sun’s atmospheric temperatures. Researchers previously thought that nanoflares, which are solar flares much smaller than what sophisticated telescopes can capture, were behind the dramatic difference in the sun’s temperatures.

After students spent a collective 56,000 hours analyzing the data, however, they found that nanoflares aren’t powerful enough to make the sun’s corona hotter than its surface. Although this mystery remains unsolved, their work shed light on other theories, including magnetic waves transferring energy from the sun’s core to the atmosphere.

“All the undergrads got to be coauthors on the paper,” Altenbern says. “I think that was a perfect way of how people adapted to pandemic conditions.”

Making research strides

Later, as pandemic restrictions eased, Altenbern returned to campus to conduct research at the Batey Laboratory on riboswitches. The laboratory’s principal investigator, Robert Batey, a professor of biochemistry, became Altenbern’s advisor for her honors thesis her senior year.

“I wanted to become a forensic pathologist,” Altenbern says. “So, during my junior year, I really wanted to get into research.”

She interviewed with a few labs at CU Boulder, but found that Batey’s research team “really intrigued me just because of how the lab was set up, it’s a bit unconventional,” Altenbern says. “Batey made this structure where it was a bunch of undergrads working collaboratively on one project.”

Each team of undergraduates was paired with one specific part of the genomic library, and experimented with how nucleotides revealed the structure and function of riboswitches.

Altenbern also ventured into a novel, eight-month autopsy internship program at the Denver Medical Examiner’s Office. The hands-on program was very rewarding for Altenbern’s interest in forensic pathology.

“You learned a lot of evisceration techniques and general morgue operations,” Altenbern says. “I learned how to remove a brain in under seven minutes.”

But Altenbern’s favorite part of the internship was learning from the doctors, pathologists and autopsy technicians who guided her through the nitty-gritty of forensic pathology, allowing her “to see that I’m actually interested in it.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

Despite Altenbern’s busy schedule as a biochemistry and art history student, she also was an active presence in the campus community as a student ambassador, club organizer and lead student manager at The Connection, the campus bowling, billiard and game center.

“Especially after the pandemic, I really needed to talk to people face-to-face,” Altenbern says. “It pushed me to become really involved in campus events. A lot of my closest friends I met through being a student ambassador or working at The Connection.

“My advice to anyone is just get involved. A lot of people are nervous about taking that step, but everyone feels that way. I think being involved in the arts and sciences naturally led me into being involved in so many different jobs and clubs across campus.”

After graduating with her double major, a minor in sociology and certificate in public health, Altenbern will conduct laboratory research this fall at the National Institutes of Health, focusing on RNA viruses and viral assembly mechanisms.

Altenbern believes that medical school or a PhD program is just on her horizon. However, remembering her undergraduate experience, she says there’s no way to know where her path will go next.

“I really want to continue doing research, but maybe I’ll go into forensic pathology. Everything is always changing all the time,” Altenbern says. “I have no idea where I’m going to end up, but it’s just one step at a time.”