Whether it’s on stages across North America or in biology laboratories at UNL, Brad Bartholomai chases his dreams.
Bartholomai, 32, never saw himself as a scientist — he wanted to perform before audiences. So when the Lincoln native graduated high school and spent a short time at Kansas State University, he turned his attention to New York City, where he spent six years living the “gypsy lifestyle” of a musical theater performer.
As a cast member of touring musicals, Bartholomai traveled across the United States, Canada and Mexico. He was running to auditions between tours, mixing with other Broadway performers and soaking up New York culture.
But after five national tours, including a turn in “Cats,” Bartholomai began to wonder: Would his love for theater carry him throughout life?
“I felt like I had got out of it what I wanted,” he said. “I really started thinking about finishing my degree. I knew that by not having a degree my future was a lot more limited. And I wanted to put down some roots.”
Fatigued from the schedule he’d been keeping in New York, Bartholomai moved back to Lincoln in 2007 to mull his options while working in retail management.
After a couple of years in retail management, Bartholomai enrolled at UNL, figuring he’d eventually become a nutritionist or physical therapist. Those occupations seemed to relate to musical theater, he said.
“Then the sciences really pulled me in.”
Bartholomai began working in a laboratory with associate professor of biology Cathy Chia during his second year at UNL and changed his major to microbiology. He found himself excelling at conducting research — something he did by putting science and art together.
“I can utilize my creativity and artistic background to think outside the box,” he said. “Most scientific discovery is born out of creative thinking or happy accidents, both of which I seem to come by naturally.”
Bartholomai said his experience and perseverance as an actor have also made him a more patient researcher – something his mentor has noticed, as well.
“He is not discouraged when experiments go wrong, which is important because there usually are more failures than successes,” Chia said. “Brad has displayed the mental focus needed to be a professional scientist.”
The busy lifestyle he led as a performer has also translated well in his role as a non-traditional student. In addition to keeping up with a full course load, laboratory work, teaching assistantships and extracurricular activities, Bartholomai works at least 20 hours a week at Saint Elizabeth Regional Medical Center to pay bills and keep his health insurance. It hasn’t been easy to juggle everything, but Bartholomai said the resources and people at UNL have made it possible.
“I’m very much a doer and I believe you have to put yourself at the front of the line to succeed,” he said. “But the professors here are really invested in you and working in a lab has been an invaluable experience.”
Since last year, Bartholomai has participated in UNL’s UCARE program, which provides funding for student research. He also is a member of Tri Beta, a national biological honor society, and is vice president of the UNL chapter. He recently earned national recognition from Tri Beta in the form of a research scholarship.
The scholarship will help Bartholomai’s research on an enzyme that is in all living organisms, including viruses, with the goal of developing therapeutic uses.
While the $700 scholarship is small, it is proof that Bartholomai’s hard work is being noticed outside of UNL – and as an undergrad applying for admission to graduate school, that’s invaluable, he said.
He is on track to earn his undergraduate degree in May. That’s the next step in fulfilling his wish to teach at a university. Bartholomai’s time at UNL has included being as a teaching assistant and he has found he enjoys conveying biological concepts to students.
“Being a performer seems to translate well to leading a classroom full of students,” he said. “I think I’d be an awesome professor.”