The Goldfinch: A Hockey-Playing Scientist
Issue   |   Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:49
Photo courtesy of Chris Finch '14
The biochemistry major earned a Churchill Scholarship to research plant biotechnology at Cambridge next year.

Steamboat Springs, Colo., otherwise known as “Ski Town U.S.A," is home to more Winter Olympians than any other place in the country. It is also home to senior biochemistry major Christopher Finch, who moved to the mountain town when he was seven years old. While he may not be a competitive skier, Finch still took advantage of all Colorado had to offer by staying active, playing hockey and exploring the great outdoors.

Team Player

At the age of eight, Finch started playing hockey after a classmate brought hockey cards to school. He got his father to take a trip with him to the “hockey swap” where they could pick up used hockey gear and equipment, and started playing from then on.

Growing up and even now, Finch has always been a Colorado Avalanche fan and recalls fondly the games he attended with his dad. There were the long car rides traveling to the rink and the breakfasts after early morning practices he is extremely grateful for. When looking back on his “fast departing childhood,” Finch names hockey at the center of it all.

“There’s something very free about the times when you didn’t have a care in the world and could just play hockey.”

A forward on his high school hockey team, Finch caught the attention of Amherst men’s head hockey coach Jack Arena ’83 and was recruited to play for the college. Finch has many fond memories of his time playing hockey at Amherst, particularly because of the close bonds he formed with his teammates.

“I can’t even fathom what it would have been like going through school without playing hockey,” Finch said. “Not only going from the standpoint of having something that you are very passionate about and that you’re able to pursue at a high level, but also from the standpoint of having teammates and being able to spend all the time with them that I have. Hockey made Amherst what it is to me.”

Teammate Ryan Edwards ’14 definitely feels Finch’s warm presence on the team.

“I think Finch is all about being there for the team,” Edwards said. “He really thinks about his relationships with people on the team, and I think would give an arm and a leg for any of the guys on the team.”

Playing in just 19 games over the course of his college career, Finch had his shining moment during his junior year in the team’s game against St. Michael’s. Going into the third period tied at one-all, he notched his first and only collegiate goal to help lift the Jeffs to a 4-1 victory.

“Although Chris didn’t play a lot, he was a model teammate. His attitude and work ethic never wavered, and he made our team better every day,” Arena recounted. “The fact that he hasn’t had the same success in hockey that he has in other areas of his life hasn’t altered his approach in the least, and because of that, my admiration of him has only grown.”
This past year, Finch was the hockey team’s recipient of the Friends of Amherst Athletics award, given to a student for showing true dedication to both their athletic and educational experience.

Learning from Nature

Off the ice, Finch enthusiasm extends to exploring the outdoors.

“Sometimes, you feel like you need to get outside, so I would grab a backpack and throw in some stuff, some water, and maybe some survival gear, just in case worst comes to worst,” Finch said. “Then I would go out and have an adventure. I think there’s a lot of excitement in that.”

Some of his more extensive adventures include a 55-kilometer Nordic ski race in Colorado, during which he skied down a north-facing slope on the Fourth of July, and hiking the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. In the future, he plans to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and also visit New Zealand. However, he firmly believes that hiking and backpacking locally can be just as “enriching as the experiential things.”

Finch’s time alone with nature led him to start contemplating life, existence and other big philosophical questions. The more he learned about how things worked, the more amazing the world appeared to him.

“The more you look up to the stars or you look at a tree or just wander through the wilderness, the more spectacular the world surrounding us seems,” Finch said.

His fondness for nature in conjunction with his love for science sparked his interest in his dream job: scuba diving in exotic locations for rare bacteria and then uncovering their use in the lab.

This desire stems from Finch’s observation that many drugs are based upon the riches that nature has given us, and his dream career is to uncover these riches for science and humanity.

Finch was always interested in the intersection between business and science, of taking research from the lab and transforming it into something that can impact people’s lives directly. He saw research in the lab as an opportunity to understand the world better and to enrich people’s lives.

In fact, Finch operates with the mindset that if research is not turned into something that can help people, it will not reach its full potential.

“No matter how good the science is, if the business side is not there, then it’s not going to be fully utilized. No matter how interested someone is on the business front, if the science isn’t there, then it won’t work. That interface is very interesting to me,” Finch said.

Finch ended up majoring in biochemistry because it allowed him to explore his diverse interests. He enjoyed the biology part because he “was constantly immersed in nature” while the chemistry part allowed him to understand “how chemistry dictates who we are through the proteins or genetics.”

His thesis investigated a signaling pathway of Dictostelium discoideum, or more simply put, slime mold. The protein he was working with, phosphodiesterase, is involved in a number of different symptoms, including hypertension, schizophrenia, depression and muscular dystrophy.

His thesis advisor, Chemistry Professor David Ratner, described Finch as “smart as can be,” lauding him for his ability to think clearly and willingness to go after an idea.

“The answers he showed on exams and through interpreting experimental data were just so insightful they astonished me,” Ratner said of Finch’s work in Molecular Genetics. Though Finch was only a sophomore, he earned one of the highest grades in the class, including a 100 on the final exam — the first 100 Ratner has given in over a decade.

Moreover, Finch’s methodical nature is well suited for the focused discipline of biochemistry.

“He came and stayed at Rochester where I’m from for the night, and we had a steak dinner. And Finch is notorious for being very methodical for the way he cuts his meat and the way he prepares his dinner,” Edwards said. “Everything needs to be well organized on his plate. My brother was just sitting there watching him cut his steak and we were all sitting there, basically done with our meals, and he just finished cutting every piece of fat off the steak. I think that is the way Finch approaches everything: very rational, very focused and when I walk into his room sometimes, I can feel like he’s in another world.”

The Next Step

Next year, Finch will be at the University of Cambridge, performing research in plant biotechnology for a year under his Churchill Scholarship. His lab there will focus on bioengineering algae for bio-energy purposes.

“Plants in particular are definitely intriguing to me,” Finch said. “You can get algae to produce biofuels, but you could have plants or algae produce any number of compounds. You could have them produce antibiotics or you could have them produce compounds that are helpful for themselves, for stuff like crop enhancement, or helping feed the world.”

Finch said the next question for him is, “Can you engineer a plant that produces some compound that helps it grow or increase its yield in poor soil conditions or drought?”

Questions like these have prompted Finch’s desire to start a company that will be “pushing at the cutting-edge with some of these bioengineering technologies.” The path that will take him there is unclear, as it will be difficult to determine when he will stumble upon something that is worth pursuing as a business.

Since hockey has been a focus of his life for so long, Finch is excited for Cambridge, to find “what is going to be the new passion or the new focus.”

Finch has always had a particular admiration for the American founding fathers, pioneers of the Scientific Revolution and Steve Jobs for their eccentric minds and their methodologies.

“Sometimes it was weird, sometimes it was wrong, sometimes it didn’t work, but it changed the world,” he said. “For all the things that they had that were incorrect, they had so many others that had a huge impact on the world today.”

Finch believes that he’s spent much of his life thus far accumulating information and knowledge, but hasn’t done a lot of “taking it in and turning it into something you can give back.”

By pursuing a subject matter that he is truly passionate about, Finch hopes to spread his insights to others, believing he “can inspire you if [he’s] inspired about it.”