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Genetics catalyze Chemistry major’s pivot from medicine

Erin Hirtzel outside headshot

Erin Hirtzel ’21 was 18 when the tremors started. That’s two years later than when they started for her mother. Two years when she thought she’d beaten the odds.

She had made plans: pre-med, then med school, complete her surgical residency, and spend the rest of her life saving others. But, in her senior year of high school, the tremors she always knew might come for her, did, and just like that, all her plans changed.

Finding a new passion

It was Erin’s high school chemistry teacher who inspired her to pivot from medicine to chemistry. “She kind of gave me the faith in myself that I could do that,” Erin says.

One of the draws of becoming a surgeon was the focused work that would help others. Her teacher showed her that chemistry could take her down a similar path without the need for unshakably steady hands.

She chose York College of Pennsylvania to pursue her degree. “I wanted to go to a school where it was small enough the professors would know my name,” she says.

A love of learning

Erin’s parents always emphasized the importance of education, and she shares their belief. She pounces on every opportunity to learn and grow, and challenge herself. She’s an American Constitutional Freedom Scholar, a Graham Innovation Scholar, and a University Innovation Fellow. “I think that being informed and learning is something that I really value,” she says, “and I’m trying to not take that for granted.”

Being in the chemistry program at York College has given her opportunities she couldn’t have gotten elsewhere. In her first year, she found herself bored in some of the foundation classes. She talked with her advisor, who got her trained on how to use a MALDI-TOF mass spectrometer (a tool that measures the mass-to-charge ratio of ions). It’s a piece of equipment most undergrads, let alone first-year students, wouldn’t dream of having access to.

That focus on individualized attention is one of the things Erin loves about York College. “They have this attitude of whatever you want to do, we’ll make sure it happens,” she says.

A different kind of challenge

Erin has learned how to manage her tremors. She has a trusted lab partner and makes sure she’s rested. But, her biggest physical challenge hasn’t been in the lab, but on the wall—the rock-climbing wall.

Erin didn’t have any experience when she joined York College’s Rock Climbing Club. She just showed up one day and said, ‘teach me.’ “It was really scary to be so exposed and so knowledge-less,” she remembers.

Not long after, she was going to competitions and figuring out how to work with her tremors. She’s learned that as she gets tired, the tremors get worse. So, she doesn’t warm up a lot, and works from hardest to easiest problems at competitions—opposite what her teammates and competitors do. “It’s really cool because everyone is so supportive,” she says. “It’s very much like a community feeling.”

Gaining experience

Erin wants to pursue a PhD once she graduates from York College, but beyond that, she isn’t sure. Right now, she’s trying to soak up every experience she can. “I want to try to expose myself to the different kinds of chemistry as much as possible,” she says.

That’s part of the draw to chemistry; there’s so much flexibility and opportunity available to her.

Genetic tremors changed the course of Erin’s life. She’s never going to be a surgeon, but she will always keep learning, seizing every opportunity she gets at York College and beyond.